Tara raced around the house, gathering the materials for her meeting into a tote bag. She ducked into the kitchen for the grocery list; a breeze lifted the note, sailing it under the refrigerator. Argh.
Why did this kind of stuff happen when she was running late? Groaning, she got another scrap of paper, rewrote a couple of items. Someday, she’d pull the fridge out from the wall and retrieve all the things that had blown under there. Who knew? Maybe a few hundred-dollar bills had taken up residence when Gran lived in the bungalow.
Pulling out the fridge was a two-person job, and there was no second person. Reagan would have gotten a kick out of such a treasure hunt. Her throat tightened. Reagan…
Time to get out of here. She jumped down the two steps to the living room, crossed to the front door, and let herself out.
The moist heat of September had baked the fragrance of the flowers and grass into the air. A little girl skipped along the green and gold dappling the path. “Hi, Tara. Where’re you going?”
“Hi, Beth.” Tara grinned at the ten-year-old and kept walking. “I have a meeting.”
Beth squinted at her. “Are you going to wear that skirt when you teach us climbing?”
Tara laughed. “No, funny girl. I’ll change before then. I can’t climb in this outfit.”
Beth stopped at the fence, clutching the iron gate. “Bye.”
“Bye, honey. See you in class.”
The hot breath of the car rolled out when she opened the door. Why hadn’t she remembered to crack the car windows last night? Fatigue, that was why. Too much overtime had drained her energy and dimmed her ability to focus after work. She climbed in and started the car.
Digging in her purse for sunglasses, her fingers encountered the can of pepper spray she’d put in there that morning. If some stranger accosted her at night, she’d be ready next time. Would she need it for an attacker or for Steve?
Traffic was light, and she made good time to the Cancer Specialty Clinic. After she checked in at the long desk, the receptionist handed her a clipboard with a stack of forms. “Please fill these out, Ms. West, and I’ll let Dr. Connor’s nurse know you’re here.”
The woman swung away and answered the phone. Tara smiled tightly. Guess all the polite personnel are at lunch.
Nothing had changed since her last visit except the date. She took a seat near the window.
Bars of sunlight fell across the carpet, adding some cheer to the gray waiting room. Magazines scattered on low tables provided sparse color accents. Same as it always was. A knot filled her stomach. After a decade of visits to CHC, why did she still get a case of nerves? Almost five years without a relapse. She was good to go, right?
What about the fatigue? Did that mean trouble? The knot in her stomach tightened. No, it wasn’t like the leukemia. No nosebleeds, no weakness. There wasn’t a reason to panic. Just too much overtime. Dr. Connor would know; he’d been with Tara since the beginning. On the margin of the top form, she sketched a cat. Should’ve brought a book.
“Tara? Come on back.”
Grinning, Tara jumped up and headed for the woman holding the door to the exam rooms.
Rose said, “You look good, honey.”
As time went on, Dr. Connor’s nurse hadn’t changed. Comforting, familiar, like a mother, especially over the past five years. Tara followed her down a hallway pungent with the smells of rubbing alcohol and disinfectant. They continued past closed doors, a waiting alcove, and stopped outside a small conference room.
The sort of room where patients received news like “you have cancer” or “we did all we could, but…”
Rose motioned Tara inside. “Have a seat.”
The space held a small table surrounded by four gray chairs. A box of tissues sat in the middle of the table, a silent testament to the kinds of discussions that took place here. For ten years Tara had doctored at CHC, and she hadn’t been ushered into one of these consultation rooms since her last relapse. Something had happened. A shiver raised goose bumps as she sank into a seat. “What’s wrong?”
The nurse studied the floor and plucked at the front of her pale pink uniform. “You’re not seeing Dr. Connor today. He’s…sick, and I couldn’t get in touch with you before you left.”
She’d finally gotten a cell and then hadn’t given the number to the receptionist. “Is—is he okay? After my appointment we had some last-minute things to go over for the fund-raiser.”
Rose lowered herself into a chair. “We aren’t sure when he’ll be back.”
“What do you mean?”
Rose bit her lip. “I… He had a heart attack.”
Tara’s breath caught. “When? Is he okay?”
“This morning.” Rose blew out a breath. “He’s holding his own, but it’s serious. He’s in ICU at St. Mary’s.”
Under the table, Tara clenched her hands together in her lap. Rose would not see her fall apart. Time to resurrect the big-time-problem coping mechanisms. Shift brain into objective management mode. Compartmentalize the disease to make it bearable.
I’m going to lose him.
No. Rose said he was holding his own—alive.
I lose everyone.
Don’t think about Reagan. Dr. Connor is alive. Breathe.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t dealt with this before, but could she survive another loss—
She straightened. Keeping her voice level, she asked, “What are we talking about here? Angioplasty, medication, bypass surgery? Or some combination?”
“We haven’t heard yet. He’s stable, though.” Rose reached across the table and patted Tara’s arm. The woman’s touch conveyed sympathy, support, stability. A rock in the eddy of emotion.
Tara swallowed against the lump in her throat. What could she do to help? “I can look in on his house. I still have a key from last summer.”
“I’m sure he’d appreciate that. He’d planned to see you for a checkup today.” Rose squeezed Tara’s hand. “Dr. Nichols is covering, and he can see you.”
Tara jerked free. No way would she take on a new doctor at this point. Too many strangers had poked and prodded her over the past decade. Dr. Connor was her one constant through those ten years. They’d have to reschedule the appointment. There was only one other doctor Tara trusted. “I don’t know
Dr. Nichols. I’ll see Dr. Martino.”
Rose shook her head. “She’s swamped with extra patients. Dr. Nichols is excellent. Plus he’s offered to fill in for Dr. Connor and help you with the foundation fund-raiser.”
The situation got worse by the minute. She already had to deal with seeing Joe at the event. How could Dr. Nichols help at this late date? Tara narrowed her eyes. “I’ll reschedule with Dr. Martino and handle the event myself.”
Rose’s gaze cut away and then back. “Dr. Martino wants you to work with Dr. Nichols.”
No. No, no, no.
“Please.” The nurse’s gaze begged her.
Jeez, the woman knew how to ladle out the guilt. Tara folded her arms across her chest. “Fine. When can this guy meet with me?”
Rose relaxed. “He can see you now.”
Down the hallway they went to an exam room. A small built-in desk flanked by two hard chairs hugged the wall to the left, and a padded table stood against the back wall along with a supply cabinet. Everything in gray. A mass-produced print of a rainy street scene further depressed the decor. Tara sighed. Who was their decorator, the Grim Reaper? How about a little color, people?
Rose laid a gown on the table. “I’ll give you a couple of minutes before sending him in.” She left.
Tara scowled. No gown. He’d have to examine her through her clothes, and she wasn’t sitting on the exam table. Absently, she chewed on her thumbnail and flopped into one of the chairs. The briny taste of blood grabbed her attention. With a groan, she pulled out a tissue, dabbed at her cuticle, and wound the makeshift bandage around her thumb.
She contemplated the ceiling. Acoustic tiles. Perforated white squares hanging in a metal framework. No crazed paint with endless cracks there. Linear organization. A place where thoughts progressed in an orderly fashion until they reached a sensible conclusion. Unlike her life.
If she were someone outgoing and sociable, a last-minute change of doctors wouldn’t be such a stressor. A last-minute substitution for the fund-raiser constituted a challenge, not a disaster. The man had volunteered.
She unwrapped the tissue. A drop of blood beaded up, and she sucked it off, grimacing at the metallic flavor before yanking her thumb free. Who’d believe she could manage a major fund-raiser if she got caught her sucking her thumb like a baby?
With Dr. Connor sidelined she was on her own, except for Dr. Nichols. No friends or family to call on for help. Funny, she’d always wanted to be in charge, but it didn’t feel good to be left alone with such a suffocating responsibility. Plus, she’d let Rose guilt her into discussing her medical history with a complete stranger.
Better get a grip before the guy comes in.
She smoothed her hair and crossed her legs. At least she’d try to appear adult and professional.
A soft knock sounded, and she took a deep breath. Showtime.
Tara’s new doctor and keynote speaker entered the room, closed the door. Striking electric-blue eyes locked on to hers.
The man wasn’t at all what she’d expected. He wasn’t old, or bald, or short, like Dr. Connor. Instead, he appeared to be in his early thirties, broad-shouldered and tall, six feet plus a few inches. Tousled dark hair fell in loose curls to the edge of his collar. Old-fashioned movie-star looks, with a square chin and straight nose. Full mouth, curved in a white smile.
He didn’t wear a tie, and his button-down was open at the neck, the blue chambray contrasting with his tanned skin. A white coat hid most of his build, but she’d bet it was spectacular.
He had the kind of presence women gravitated toward.
“Ms. West? I’m Evan Nichols. I’m covering for Dr. Connor.” His voice was low as a lullaby, smooth as crème brulee, delicious and irresistible. The words poured over her, and she relaxed.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. “Hi. Please call me Tara.”
“Sorry we had to meet this way.” He held out his hand.
She got to her feet and shook with him. A firm and comforting grip, conveying masculine strength and unexpected heat, holding her attention like a rockslide. The scent of cedar and clove reached her nose. God, he smelled wonderful.
For a moment her knees loosened. Was there some interest there? He released her hand, leaving her unsteady. She dropped into her seat.
As he settled into the other chair, he put her chart down on the desk. “Well, Ms. West.”
“Tara, then.” White teeth flashed. “I know it’s hard to change your plans this late in the game, but I hope we can work together on the foundation’s fund-raiser.” He tapped her chart with his index finger. “I also know you were scheduled to see Dr. Connor today as a patient. Rose said you were okay with seeing me instead.”
“Um, yes.” Those eyes monopolized her attention. Bahamian water—she’d drown in them if she gazed too long. From this close, gold flecks danced in the blue. Contact lenses?
“Why don’t we start with your medical appointment, if that’s okay with you?”
“Fine with me.” Infatuation had to stop here. She would not go all weak-kneed, would not let him affect her. Hadn’t she sworn off romantic relationships, especially with men in high-powered jobs?
He shuffled through some loose papers. “I have Dr. Connor’s notes, but I didn’t have much time to read your chart. A regular four-month checkup, right?”
Her vocal cords seemed to be on hiatus. The combination of his body and his voice made her breathless and distracted. Dr. Connor was a wrinkled little old bald man, and he’d never been distracting. More like paternal.
Maybe it would be better to omit the appointment and stick with the fund-raiser. On the other hand, he might make a great substitute—
“Tara? Are you okay?”
“Fine. I’m fine.” Focus.
Under the desk, she dug her fingernails into her other palm and met his gaze. Hypnotic. That shade of blue could not occur in nature.
Dr. Nichols smiled, and she smiled back. Why am I smiling?
Without a doubt, he knew the effect he had on her. On women in general. All the more reason to avoid him after the fund-raiser.
The fatigue. She should tell him about the lack of energy, how everything made her tired. But he didn’t know her history. She pushed her chart across the table toward him. “Maybe we can go over the basics first.”
He held up a hand. “I do know you were diagnosed with leukemia at sixteen, and had chemo. You relapsed five years later and had additional chemo. Now you’ve been healthy for—”
“Over four years.” He did have the essentials right. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
“Do you need to get blood work done? Or did you already do it?” He frowned as he studied Dr. Connor’s notes.
Tara hid a smile. How often had she teased Dr. Connor about his doctor’s handwriting? “No. Not yet. Dr. Connor usually orders the tests he wants after he sees me.”
His gaze flicked to hers. “Let’s get some blood work.”
Her heart skipped. How ridiculous was that? He was a man. A beautiful man, but just a man. Tara laced her fingers together in her lap, squeezed. “Blood work. Okay.”
“Can you sit on the exam table and let me take a look at you?”
“Um, I’d prefer not to.” No strange stethoscope on her chest, even if it belonged to him, thank you very much.
“No?” He sounded surprised.
Didn’t anyone say no to him? “No.”
“I understand you were expecting to see Dr. Connor today, not me.” His voice carried no anger, only compassion. “If you want to talk about that—”
There was a sharp knock, and Rose stuck her head in. “Sorry to interrupt, but they need you in the infusion center, Dr. Nichols.”
Tara gathered her purse and notebook. “I’ll leave the fund-raiser information for you. Maybe we can do this another time.”
She snapped him a frustrated look. “What?”
“After I take care of this, we could have lunch. Since the fund-raiser is in a few days, we could get in some discussion while we eat. If that’s okay.”
“I don’t know…”
“If you like, I can reschedule today’s checkup.” That engaging smile made an appearance as he scooted his chair back and stood. “How about I meet you around the corner at the Silver Screen Café in half an hour? Will that work for you?”
Any other time, she’d say no to this sort of invitation without a second thought. Lunch with a gorgeous man? Bad idea. But she had to fill him in about the fund-raiser if he intended to help. Keeping in mind what had happened with Joe ought to keep her on task. “Okay. Thirty minutes.”
* * * *
Evan entered the café. The tempting smell of tomato soup and grilled burgers wafted from the kitchen as he scanned the tables for Tara. Anticipation rippled through him. Somehow her handshake had eased the restlessness when nothing else had worked, and he wanted to experience that blessed relief again. He caught sight of her sitting a couple of booths down with her back to him, holding her cell phone. He headed her way.
“Tara?” He stopped next to her. The proximity alone helped; the vibration of the restlessness sank into the background, became a pleasant idle.
She jumped in her seat and disconnected. “I was about to call you to cancel.”
“Sorry I’m late.” He grinned and slid into the booth opposite her.
“It’s okay.” Her voice pulled at him like a velvet-covered magnet. “With Dr. Connor out, I know you’re busy. I can handle the fund-raiser myself.”
Seriously, I want to help you. It’s a big event—not exactly a one-person job.”
Tara laid the phone on the table, and he studied her hands. No rings, no polish, long slim fingers.
Would the restless sensation quiet further if they touched?
“I’ve handled the auction portion myself for several years.”
“But isn’t there a medically oriented presentation that Dr. Connor would have covered?”
Tara grimaced. “I could take it out.”
“Or I could fill in.” His stomach growled.
Tara gave a tiny smile. “Hungry?”
He’d gotten a grin. Maybe she was starting to relax. “Yeah. It’s been a long time since breakfast.” That meal had been dry toast, juice, and blood capsules. “Guess we better order.”
They reached for the menus behind the napkin holder; as he took a menu his fingers brushed hers. Warmth passed between them, and the idle settled into a hum. Much better.
Her eyes widened, but she didn’t jerk back; instead she took a menu and set it on the table. He caught a whiff of her jasmine fragrance.
No scent of desire. Now that was different; refreshing. Out of nowhere, the urge to touch her pushed at him. What the hell? No. That would be beyond inappropriate.
The waitress materialized and set a glass of orange juice in front of Tara. The server’s smile was a little too bright and directed only at him. “Hi. Are you ready to order?”
Simpering women annoyed him, and this one was an unwelcome interruption. “Iced tea for now, until we look at the menus.”
The girl nodded but didn’t move.
Even more annoying. He couldn’t give her a mental push with an audience, so he settled for a hard stare. “We need a minute. Please.”
With a start, she registered the dismissal and left.
Evan leaned back in the booth, studying Tara instead of the daily specials. She focused on the menu, hiding her eyes from him. When Lordes Martino had asked Evan to pinch-hit for Jim Connor, he’d expected some matronly charity event planner, not a young woman. Tara’s chart put her at twenty-six, but she appeared younger.
Her features were an interesting combination of high cheekbones flowing into a narrow jaw, a slightly crooked nose, and a Cupid’s bow mouth. Long, long lashes, pale skin, but no visible makeup. Her hair reminded him of caramelized sugar, wound into a tight bun. A few errant strands brushed her neck.
Despite the unfitted top and long skirt, he got the impression of a slender figure. No particular feature made her stand out, but the combination was attractive. More than attractive. Captivating. He couldn’t divert his gaze.
As if sensing his attention, she looked up.
Green-gold eyes looked into his, unusual in their directness. The natural light brought out the color in a way the fluorescents at the clinic couldn’t. Those eyes gazed right back at him, and not in the star-struck way of most women.
She lowered her lids and held the menu like a shield. “You’re staring at me.”
“Sorry.” He offered a smile. Yeah, he was staring, but he’d rather touch and enjoy the heat between them. And why was that? Had he lost his mind? Other than comforting patients, he wasn’t a touchy-feely guy, especially with women.
The waitress arrived with his iced tea and pulled out a notepad. “Are you ready to order?”
He nodded toward Tara.
“Um, the turkey wrap. No mayo, no cheese, no sides, please.” She returned the menu to the slot behind the napkins.
Evan frowned. Not enough, even for her slight frame. “I’ll have a bowl of the tomato bisque soup and a pastrami sandwich. Wheat bread, Swiss, lettuce, mayo, and toasted.”
He stowed the menu and gave the server a pointed look. She took the hint and left.
“Wow. And you didn’t even look at the choices.” Tara unrolled her silverware and aligned the pieces diagonally on the napkin. Knife in the middle, fork and spoon on either side.
“I order lunch from here a lot.” He eyed the arrangement of her utensils. Compulsive or artistic? Or nervous? He leaned in, folding his arms on the table. God, he wanted to touch her…that handshake had been an eye opener, soothing the restless feeling as it had. But he hardly knew her; touching would be a mistake. A big mistake.
Tara grabbed the pepper shaker and put it between them. Roadblock. Her gaze flicked to his. “You don’t like the CSC cafeteria?”
“You can only eat so much institutional food.”
“I know what you mean.” She set the saltshaker next to the pepper and added the little container of sugar packets, making a barrier.
“When I first started at CSC, I ate there a lot. I think it was the Friday casseroles that put me off. What do they put in those things?”
A faint smile brightened Tara’s face. “No clue.”
“Some of my patients claim they use—”
Evan chuckled. “Yeah. How did you know?”
“That joke’s been going around since my first chemo.”
The conversation lagged; tension traveled across the table on invisible feet. He leaned in low, trying to capture her hazel-eyed gaze. “Am I making you nervous?”
She glanced at him for a second and then went back to her condiment alignment. A box of Silver Screen
movie trivia cards joined the wall. “No. It’s just—I have to work this afternoon.”
Intending to rearrange the roadblock, he moved his right hand forward a few inches and tapped the sugar packets. Tara immediately moved a hot sauce bottle in place behind the sweetener.
Evan left the container in place. If the wall made her more comfortable, so be it. “What do you do when you’re not organizing a fund-raiser?”
Her gaze narrowed, focused on the barrier between them, and she didn’t answer.
The conversation was getting to be pretty one-sided. How was he supposed to get to know her? Maybe a more direct approach. “Is that too personal?”
She lifted her chin. “No. I work at Neolithic Sports.”
“The mountaineering place? What do you do there?” He rotated the holder of trivia cards, and she leaned back.
“I deal mostly with the rock climbing gear, and I teach a class for kids on the climbing wall three days a week.” With one finger she maneuvered the mustard bottle into the queue.
“Do you like teaching?”
“Most of the time.” Her eyes stayed locked on her condiment project.
She climbed walls and built walls. Interesting.
The waitress arrived; wordlessly she shuffled aside part of Tara’s construction, put the food down, and left. He tried the sandwich. A little dry today. He dunked it in his soup and took another bite. Better.
Tara quirked a smile. “Is it tastier dipped?”
“Yeah. Why don’t we go over the program while we eat? I don’t want to keep you.” Liar.
He did want to keep her, and that made him uneasy. Women never interested him, so what drew him to her? He took another bite of pastrami before he blurted his fascination.