Authors: Laurie Paige
“In town?” He glanced at the clock. Almost five. The sky glowed with the pink hues of dawn.
“Yes. An accident on I-10. The family has given consent.”
“I'm on my way.”
A life for a life, he mused a few minutes later, driving the three blocks to the hospital. At any other time, it would have been faster to walk. This morning he was in a hurry, and traffic was light.
The hospital board met in the conference room. Michael listened to the report from the attending physician, then looked over the chart of the victim. A girl, he saw, the same age as his niece. A life just beginning and already snuffed out.
Setting pity aside, he joined in the discussion of blood factors and an evaluation of the patients waiting for a heart. The decision was unequivocal. Susan was the closest match of the top ten on the list.
Before heading for surgery, he stopped by the waiting room where Archy and Kate, rumpled and tired, waited anxiously. They'd been awakened and informed of the possible surgery during the meeting. He assured them that things looked good for Susan.
Next he stopped by Susan's room. She was asleep from the drugs they'd started in her IV drip thirty minutes ago. He dropped a very light kiss on her lips, which were cool to his touch. Her face was pale. The oxygen tube was clipped to her nose again.
He checked her vital signs on the monitors. She was as ready as she would ever be. For a second he lingered, then he resolutely forced his thoughts to the task at hand.
An hour later Michael had his team assembled. He briefed them on the procedures and order of events. One thing he'd learned: There had to be someone in total control, coordinating each team's efforts so that they flowed smoothly, like two rivers coming together to form one. That would be him.
“Ready?” he asked.
The other three surgeons nodded. The four senior surgical nurses, already scrubbed, took their places, two in each operating room, which were side by side. Other nurses and technicians were already moving about. The other two doctors, the anesthesiologists, were at their stations.
Michael made one last check, then he nodded to each team. He took his place at the operating table. The door to his emotions closed and locked. The still form on the table was that of a patient needing all his concentration and skill in order to survive.
“Scalpel,” he said.
Four hours later, he placed the last suture and stepped back from the table. It was done.
After Susan was safely in recovery and hooked up to the monitors, he removed his surgical garb and headed for the waiting room. There he found the Wainwright parents, siblings and Matt. They all stood.
“How is she?” Kate asked.
Michael smiled. “She came through just fine.”
“When can we see her?”
“She'll be in recovery for the next eighteen hours.”
“Eighteen hours,” Justin repeated. “Isn't that long?”
“Not for this kind of surgery. However, you may scrub and go in, one at a time, for five minutes when she wakes up,” he continued. “The nurse will come and get you.” He looked at his watch. “It's nearly noon. Why don't we get some food? The cafeteria here is pretty good.”
“Good idea,” Archy said, taking Kate's arm. “Come on, Katie. We need something to protect our stomachs from the acid in the machine coffee.”
Michael ate with the family, but said little except to answer their questions. After leaving them, he completed his office routine, worked out for an hour before going home, then returned to the hospital at nine that night.
Scrubbed and dressed in mask and gown, he stopped by the nurses' station before going to Susan's room. Her family had been in to see her and had gone to their hotel.
In her room, he looked over the monitors, touched her forehead, then pulled a chair close and took her hand.
Her skin was cool to the touch, her beautiful face as expressionless as a wax mask. He missed her fire and the sparks they struck off each other.
But that would come. Later. The next hours were crucial as her body and new heart began the long process of healing and adjustment. He yawned. It had been a long day.
Susan woke reluctantly. When she tried to move, she became aware of a hand holding hers. Rolling her head to the side, she saw dark hair against the white sheet.
He stirred and raised his head. His smile was heartwarming. “Hi. How do you feel?”
“Like a big truck ran over my chest.”
“Good. That's entirely normal.”
“My throat is sore.”
He nodded and brought a straw to her lips. “From the oxygen. It's so dry. Here, take a sip.”
She took a drink of water, then realized it wasn't water. “Tastes like a sports drink.”
“It's similar. You've passed the taste test, now let's see how you do at following directions. Squeeze my hand.”
Watching his face, she did so. His expression
didn't change. She tried again, harder. “What are you looking for?”
“Reassurance,” he said with a grin. “I wanted to see if you were strong enough for this.”
Bending, he gave her a surprise kiss, very quick and light, but enough to warm her lips. “I've never been kissed through a mask before. It reminds me of Zorro.”
The darkness began to close around her. She clung to his hand, which still held hers. Maybe, for now, that was okay. Tomorrow she would be stronger, she vowed. Then she wouldn't need him so much.
From deep within came a warning. It wasn't wise to depend on anyone too much. Love could come and go. Dancing had always been there for her.
“Go home,” she whispered. “You need rest.”
But he stayed until her senses shut down completely and she drifted in the endless sea of drugged sleep that erupted into pain each time she surfaced.
Michael frowned at Carmine Mercado. “You've been smoking. I told you to give it up.”
“I'm sixty-four, too old for that nonsense.”
“A man your age can expect to live to ninety,” Michael informed him.
“Ah, who wants to live that long? I got no son. My nephew hasn't married and given us children for the future. What's to live for?”
“No more smoking,” Michael said firmly, refusing to take up the don's lament.
Carmine smiled as innocently as a cherub. “Come on, Doc. It's one cigar a day. I don't even inhale.”
“Smoking interferes with the body's ability to absorb oxygen. It puts an unnecessary strain on the heart. Either stop, or forget about surgery.”
“What are my chancesâslim to none?” Carmine shrugged aside his own mortality. “I know I'm far down the list. So how's the Wainwright girl?”
“The staff thinks she's a miracle. She's doing so well, we've moved her out of the ICU and into a room in the cardiac wing. Most patients spend three to five weeks in the hospital. She'll stay maybe two. If we can hold her in that long.” His snort of laughter was wry.
“A fighter, huh? I like that. So how's my ticker?”
“The same as your doctor reported. You need to stay on your high blood pressure medication. You should have been on it years ago. Take an aspirin a day. If you take vitamins, check the amount of E. More than four hundred units a day and it acts as a blood thinner, too.”
“Okay, okay. I'll be more careful.”
Michael thought the chances of Carmine following orders were as likely as the chances of his getting a heart.
Oddly, after the week of testsâthe same ones he'd administered to Susan the week before her collapse and consequent surgeryâhe'd developed a rapport with the old guy. Carmine Mercado was tough and dangerous, but there was also an aura of dignity
about him and a sense of integrityâif one played by
Michael had made it clear he didn't play any kind of game with people's lives. Carmine had respected his stand and offered no more deals or veiled threats. He'd become simply another patient, one with a sense of humor about dying. He chuckled as he explained the jockeying going on behind the scenes to see who would succeed him.
“I'd like for my nephew, Ricky, to take over the business,” he told Michael with the earnestness of a banker discussing the next CEO of his company. “But Frankâ¦he's tough, not as smart as Ricky, but more ruthless.”
The old man was really worried, Michael realized. It could only add to the stress on the overburdened heart, but he had no suggestions for his patient on this score.
“A man has to be firm to handle business, but I never did anything that wasn't necessary, you know?” Carmine continued thoughtfully. “I've never hurt women and children, either. A man's family ought to be sacrosanct.”
“Mmm,” Michael said. “Take a deep breath.” He listened to the beating of the man's heart. Like Susan's before the operation, it was too fast, too hard and too erratic. “Okay, you can get dressed. I'll call you when I get the results of the final tests.”
“Thanks, Doc. I appreciate your looking at me.”
This was said in a perfectly sincere tone, as if his
goons hadn't visited or called Michael several times to add their not-so-subtle pressure in the decision.
Still following Spence's advice to string the don along, Michael had done the tests on the old guy and found he liked him. To a point.
“I'll do what I can,” Michael said, “but I'm making no promises.”
Carmine waved the disclaimer aside. “Okay, okay, I understand. Where am I on the list?”
“Second tier, actually. We don't have a numbered order since it depends on how well you match up to a donor. The patients in the highest group get first dibs, then those in the second group if there's no good match in the first.”
“I'm glad you think so,” Michael said with a touch of rueful amusement. Had the don been less honorable, Michael supposed it wasn't beyond imagining his men disposing of those on the A list.
Since Mercado was his last patient, Michael left the office and headed for the hospital. There, he scrubbed, slipped into surgical garb and went in to see Susan.
“I feel as if I'm surrounded by bandits,” she complained good-naturedly, eyeing his mask. “When do I get to go home?”
“When do you want to?”
She frowned suspiciously. “Tomorrow?”
“How about next Friday?”
“A week from today?”
Her green eyes widened in surprise. “Really?”
He laughed and chucked her under the chin. “Really. I'll fly you to the ranch. That will be a good place for you to convalesce.”
“No way,” she protested. “I feel great. I've talked to the ballet director. I can start back as assistant manager and chief fund-raiser as soon as I get a clean bill of health.”
Michael shook his head. “No crowds for six months. That's an order,” he added when she looked mutinous. “No shopping. No movies. No lunches at the country club.”
“You've got to be kidding.”
“If you do really well, maybe you can go to lunch after three months. You can't take a chance on infection,” he told her seriously. “Your immune system is down.”
She sighed. “I know. I take ninety pills a day to keep it that way.”
He couldn't resist when she pursed her delectable lips. He bent toward her. He had to touch her, even if it was through a gauze mask.
Emotion flickered in her eyes, then she looked away and lowered her head. He stopped and studied her.
“I really think I'll be able to do normal things soon. I can already tell a difference in how I feel. The shortness of breath and the chest pain are gone. Maybe I'll start looking for my dream man.”
Although her tone was teasing, something hot and furious flashed through Michael. With rigid control, he suppressed it. He knew about the dangers inherent in a doctor-patient relationship, the dependency syndrome and all that. It worked both ways. Doctors, in caring for someone through a dangerous situation, could also fall for their patients.
“I'm really grateful for all you've done,” she continued, her eyes and smile filled with such total trust it squeezed his insides like a vise.
Patients had been known to think they were in love with their doctors when what they felt was gratitude. Had she realized that was what she felt?
With her streak of independence and stubborn nature, he'd trusted his instincts on this one. Had he been wrong?
“I merely did my job,” he told her, ignoring the questions that speared through him. After checking her chart, he went to the gym and worked until he was exhausted enough to sleep.
His dreams were restless, though, all mixed up with the Mafia trying to steal Susan's heart while he tried desperately to get her to a safe place.
'm excited,” Susan admitted, peering out the window of Michael's car, a dark-blue sedan he kept in Houston. “Everything looks so new and different.”
“One's view of the world does change after a close-call experience,” he agreed.
She stole a glance at him. During her days in the hospital, there had been times when he'd looked at her with passion in his eyes, but mostly he'd been very professional in his manner.
That was just as well. She'd decided a doctor-patient relationship was all they shared. The night of passion had been a mistake, a weakness on her part. And his.
Her family thought he walked on water. He'd been kind and unfailingly polite to them, answering all their questions patiently and completely. He'd been the same with her. Reassuring. Encouraging. Wonderful.
The perfect physician.
Her watch pulsed against her wrist. “Pill time,” she muttered, reaching for the pill container and wa
ter bottle in her purse. “I'm really tired of pills.” She swallowed them down.
His smile was sympathetic, albeit somewhat distant. He seemed focused on other things this morning.
Pressing a hand to her chest, she realized the ache there was from a different cause than it had been two weeks ago when she'd been taken to the hospital in Mission Creek, then transferred to Houston.
After the surgery, with hours and hours of nothing to do but contemplate the future, she'd done research on the Net, using her laptop. Her chances of leading a normal life, as in having a home and raising a family, were slender.
Getting through the next five years would be a miracle, it appeared. With the multiple pill-taking and a constant wariness of infection, she would be a burden to anyone who shared her life. So she'd come to a decision.
If she was going to be a semi-invalid the rest of her life, however long
was, she wouldn't impose her frailties on anyone else, especially the man beside her, who had already gotten her through surgery and gently talked her through the days of pain and nights of doubt that followed.
Never, she vowed, would she cling to Michael's strength like a leech. He was a wonderful person and he deserved more from his mate.
If she ever married, it wouldn't be out of need and
fear, but as an equal. That was her decision. Now she had to put it into action.
“Home,” he said, interrupting the restless workings of her mind.
Home was her mother's condo. She wasn't allowed to be alone for a second. If all went well for the next two weeks, she could perhaps return to her one-bedroom apartment.
She longed for solitude and the relief of not having to constantly guard her feelings so her family wouldn't worry.
“The grass looks so incredibly green after yesterday's rain,” she murmured, concentrating on the cool expanse of lawn and lovely flower beds at the condos lining a man-made lake on the outskirts of Houston.
“The temperature has cooled, too. October is a great month for convalescing, warm enough for outdoor walks, cool enough to be comfortable,” he said, parking and turning off the engine.
She thought of walks with him, of dinner on a terrace overlooking downtown and of nights filled with delight.
The idea sent her new heart into overdrive, but now it wasn't alarming. It merely felt normal. She wondered how long it would be before she was a whole human being again, how long before she could make love.
“Other than staying away from crowds and get
ting plenty of rest, are there, uh, any other restrictions on my activities?” she asked, then wondered if he could read her thoughts when he flicked a perceptive glance her way.
“Not really. You can do anything you feel up to.”
She felt his withdrawal as a tangible thing. Since the surgery, he'd become very circumspect, other than a few light touches of his lips, usually through a mask.
“And if I feel like going to your place?” she said with a flirty coyness she detested in other women. She realized it was a defensive ploy. By treating the situation lightly, as a flirtation, she could pretend the answer didn't matter.
“I think your mother is expecting you.”
Which didn't tell her a thing. Maybe he didn't see her as a woman now that he'd performed the surgery. She was just another patient. Remembering her vow not to be a burden on anyone, she reaffirmed that resolve.
“True.” She hooked a tendril of hair behind her ear. “I need a haircut. Okay if I go to the beauty salon if it's after hours, with only the stylist there?”
“Let's see how you do first,” he suggested. “Two more weeks without complications, then you can have more freedom to come and go, up to a point.”
He carried her small piece of luggage and a plastic bag filled with a washbasin, soap, powder, lotion and
a box of tissues from the hospital, which the nurse had insisted she take home.
“Susan! Michael!” her mother exclaimed, opening the door before they rang the bell, her manner cheerful, her eyes anxious. “Come in. Are you hungry? Or do you need to rest first? I made a pan of brownies with pecans.”
Susan managed a smile. “I'm not tired at all. Brownies would be great.”
“Put the luggage there,” Kate told Michael, indicating the foyer floor. “Let's go out to the terrace. Is that okay? Can Susan go outside?”
“It's fine. In fact, she should walk every day, weather permitting,” Michael explained. “Let her be the judge of what she feels like doing, as long as she doesn't overdo. Remind her to wear a mask outside.”
“Of course. Would you like a cup of coffee?” Kate asked. “Or tea?”
“I'd prefer iced tea,” Michael replied.
“Same here.” Knowing her mother needed to feel useful, Susan let herself be led to a chair and pampered with her favorite foods. The need to be alone increased. When her mother left the room, she wished Michael would go, too.
As if sensing her thoughts, Michael took a chair beside her and said, “Depression is normal after major surgery. You'll want to withdraw from everyone.
The syndrome feeds upon itself, so try not to give in to it.”
“Don't you have a pill for that?” She didn't hide the sting of sarcasm.
He grinned. “Yes. You're getting a mild one in your daily mix. But you'll still be a grouch.”
She managed a laugh. “I won't throw any more barbs at you if you won't throw any more at me.”
“I only tell the truth. Ah, Kate. I was just telling your daughter that she'll be hard to live with for a while. It's normal, but watch out for her sharp tongue.”
Kate glanced at him, then Susan. “I'll wear armor.” She served the tea and a plate of brownies.
Susan had a feeling her mother knew of the attraction that had existed between her and the handsome surgeon and was delighted at the idea. It would be convenient to have a doctor in the family, she decided on a cynical note, in case she collapsed again.
Shaking her head slightly, she wondered why she felt so negative. The doldrums, as Michael had warned?
She admitted the possibility. It seemed she'd had to give up everythingâher career, any thoughts of a future, the passion they had sharedâand for what? A heart that her body might or might not accept.
Involvement with anyone was out of the question
until she was certain she could stand on her own and not be a spineless, clinging vine. When would that time come?
On Friday of the second week after going to stay with her mother, Susan looked expectantly at Michael in the exam room of his Houston offices. Lightly tanned from her daily walks, she felt truly rested for the first time in months. She could now stroll an hour at a time, not as fast as she once would have, but still, she was making progress. Her family was delighted.
“You're a miracle,” he said, flashing a smile her way when he looked up from the test results. “You did great on the stress test. The liver enzymes are good. There're no signs of rejection.”
“Can I stop taking the pills?” she asked.
“No, but you can cut back to eighty a day.”
She groaned in exasperation, then perked up. “Since I'm doing so well, I think I'll go to the ballet tonight. It's a benefit for the new children's wing of the hospital.”
“No crowds,” he told her sharply.
“I'll be in a box by myself. The director arranged it. I'll slip in after the house lights are dimmed. No one will know I'm there.”
“Who will be with you?”
He gave her an irritated frown and shook his head.
“You can't be running all over town by yourself. How will you get to the theater?”
He frowned at her in open exasperation. “No. You don't know who has been in them or what kind of germs are in those cars. Where's your mother?”
“She left for Mission Creek after lunch today to visit with Gran at the nursing home.”
“What time shall I pick you up?”
Her hackles rose at his tone. “I don't need anyone to baby-sit me. I'll arrange for a limo.”
“That's no better than a cab. I'll be by at seven. The ballet usually starts at eight, doesn't it?” He narrowed his eyes in a menacing fashion. “How the hell did you get here?”
“It really isn't your concern.”
He cursed under his breath. “You came in a taxi,” he concluded. “I'll be finished here in another thirty minutes. Wait in my office. I'll take you home, then to the ballet.”
She argued, but the doctor had made up his mind. She was ushered into his office, the door firmly closed after her. She stood by the window and looked at the small park where mothers watched their children and chatted.
One toddler kept heading out on his own toward the street. His mother finally set him firmly in the sandbox and stood guard to make sure he stayed.
A heaviness settled on her spirits as she watched.
Home and hearth seemed much more important to her now. Her family had been wonderfully thoughtful during her recovery, sending her gifts to cheer herâfunny e-mails, baskets of flowers, books, videos, anything to ease the boredom of her days.
Not that she'd felt like doing a lot. After having her breastbone cracked down the middle and propped open, she'd expected to be sore, but being run over by a truck didn't begin to describe the initial pain. The daily walks had been a struggle of mind over body the first week.
Today was Friday. Monday would mark four weeks since her collapse from chasing after Maria. At times during the past month, she'd found it very hard to fight the dark feelings that would roll over her suddenly and for no good reason. Underlying those was sadness, a knowledge that her fate would never be hers to command as it once had.
She felt an intense longing that had nothing to do with her health and everything to do with her heartâwith the emotional part of it and with the part of herself that wanted desperately to feel like a woman again.
Hearing Michael's deep voice in the hall outside the door caused that organ to beat fiercely. He was the center of that longing.
Closing her eyes tightly, she refused to give in to either the longing or the darkness. She would get past this on her own. She would. She must.
The office door opened. “Ready?” he asked.
A smile was almost more than she could manage, but she did. Picking up her purse, she followed him down a corridor and into a private elevator at the back of the building.
“Luckily, I drove this morning since I had an early call from the hospital,” he said, taking her arm and leading the way to the blue sedan in a numbered parking space.
“You work too hard,” she began, then stopped. His working hours were not her business.
“It's been busy of late,” he admitted. “I haven't taken Friday afternoon off in a month or so.”
Because of her and others like her who needed him to make them well, she acknowledged. But she was well now. She could take care of herself.
He drove straight to her mother's condo and whisked her inside. The mantel clock chimed six when they entered. The sound echoed through the empty rooms. Susan suddenly missed her mother's cheerful chatter.
After putting her purse on the foyer table, she lingered with her back to him. “I've changed my mind about the ballet. It's probably better that I don't go.”
He removed his suit jacket and tie, then tossed both on a chair back. “No, it'll be good for you. You're too active to play the invalid for long. I should have realized that. Let's order in. Chinese, pizza, deli?”
“Deli. Corned beef on rye with sauerkraut and hot mustard. Other than an occasional brownie, Mother has kept me on mashed bananas and mush in the belief that regular food would be too much of a strain on my heart.”
He chuckled at her wry remark. “Deli it is. I'll call. I know a great place that delivers.”
When she offered him a glass of wine, he accepted, then suggested she join him on the patio. They left the door open in order to hear the doorbell.
Susan sighed as she took a seat. Michael stretched his long legs straight out, the wineglass propped on his flat abdomen as he settled next to her and observed the land around them. She used the time to study him.
He was as handsome as ever with his dark hair and eyes as blue as a summer day. When he lifted the glass, she stared at his hands and the long fingers that could perform the most intricate surgeryâ¦or the most delicate of caresses.
Magic. Delight. Breathless passion.
She'd known all those with him. She wanted them again. Trembling as new waves of longing rushed over her, she held tight to her resolution to need no one.
While she didn't feel like one, she knew she would forever be tied to pills and tests. She knew she would never perform onstage again.
Without her mother knowing, she'd tried some
very gentle stretching exercises, then a few pliÃ©s and jetÃ©s yesterday. After fifteen minutes, she'd been trembling from head to foot from the effort. She thought it would be a long, long time before she could dance, run, make loveâ¦