Theo Buchanan couldn't seem to shake the virus. He knew he was running a fever because every bone in his body ached and he had chills. He refused to acknowledge that he was ill, though; he was just a little off-kilter, that was all. He could tough it out. Besides, he was sure he was over the worst of it. The god-awful stitch in his side had subsided into a dull throbbing, and he was positive that it meant he was on the mend. If it was the same bug that had infected most of the staff back in his Boston office, then it was one of those twenty-four-hour things, and he should be feeling as good as new by tomorrow morning. Except, the throbbing in his side had been going on for a couple of days now.
He decided to blame his brother, Dylan, for that ache. He'd really nailed Theo during a family football game on their parents' lawn at Nathan's Bay. Yeah, the pulled muscle was Dylan's fault, but Theo figured that if he continued to ignore it, the pain would eventually go away.
Damn, he was feeling like an old man these days, and he wasn't even thirty-three yet.
He didn't think he was contagious, and he had too much to do to go to bed and sweat the fever out of his body. He'd flown from Boston to New Orleans to speak at a law symposium on organized crime and to receive recognition he didn't believe he deserved for simply doing his job.
Tonight was the first of three black-tie affairs. He'd promised to attend a fund-raiser, and he couldn't back out. Dinner was going to be prepared by five of the top chefs in the city, but the gourmet food was going to be wasted on him. The thought of swallowing anything, even water, made his stomach lurch. He hadn't eaten anything since yesterday afternoon.
He sure as certain wasn't up to pointless chitchat tonight. He tucked the room key into his pocket and was reaching for the doorknob, when the phone rang.
It was his brother Nick calling to check in.
"What's going on?"
"I'm walking out the door," Theo answered. "Where are you calling from? Boston or Holy Oaks?"
"Boston," Nick answered. "I helped Laurant close the lake house and then we drove back home together."
"Is she staying with you until the wedding?"
"Are you kidding? Tommy would send me straight to hell."
Theo laughed. "I guess having a priest for a future brother-in-law does put a crimp in your sex life."
"Five more weeks and I'm gonna be a married man. Hard to believe, isn't it?"
"It's hard to believe any woman would have you."
"Laurant's nearsighted. I told her I was good-looking and she believed me. She's staying with Mom and Dad until we all head back to Iowa for the wedding. What are you doing tonight?"
"I've got a fund-raiser I have to go to," he answered. "So what do you want?"
"I just thought I'd call and say hello."
"No, you didn't. You want something. What is it? Come on, Nick. I'm gonna be late."
"Theo, you've got to learn to slow down. You can't keep running for the rest of your life. I know what you're doing. You think that if you bury yourself in work, you won't think about Rebecca. It's been four years since she died, but you -- "
Theo cut him off. "I like my life, and I'm not in the mood to talk about Rebecca."
"You're a workaholic."
"Did you call to lecture me?"
"No, Laurant's been bugging me to call you."
"Is she there? Let me talk to her," he said. He sat down on the side of the bed and realized he was feeling better. Nick's fiancée had that effect on all the Buchanan brothers. She made everyone feel good.
"She isn't here. She went out with Jordan, and you know our sister. God only knows what time they'll get home. Anyway, I promised Laurant that I'd track you down and ask..."
"She wanted me to ask you but I figure I didn't need to," he said. "It's understood."
Theo held his patience. "What's understood?"
"You're gonna be my best man in the wedding."
"What about Noah?"
"He's in the wedding, of course, but I'm expecting you to be best man. I figured you already knew that, but Laurant thought I should ask you anyway."
Theo smiled. "Yeah, okay."
His brother was a man of few words. "Okay, good. Have you given your speech yet?"
"No, that's not until tomorrow night."
"When do you get your trophy?"
"It's a plaque, and I get it right before I give my speech."
"So if you blow it and put all those armed officers to sleep, they can't take the trophy back, can they?"
"I'm hanging up."
"Hey, Theo? For once, stop thinking about work. See the sights. Get laid. You know, have a good time. Hey, I know...why don't you give Noah a call. He's in Biloxi for a couple of months for a training conference. He could drive over to New Orleans, and the two of you could have some fun."
If anyone knew how to have fun, it was Noah Clayborne. The FBI agent had become a close friend of the family after working on several assignments with Nick and then later assisting Theo with his investigations as a federal attorney for the Justice Department. He was a good man, but he had a wicked sense of fun, and Theo wasn't sure he could survive a night out with Noah just now.
"Okay, maybe," he answered.
Theo hung up the phone, stood, and quickly doubled over from the pain that radiated through his right side. It had started in his belly, but it had moved down, and, damn, but it stung. The muscle he'd pulled felt like it was on fire.
A stupid football injury wasn't going to keep him down. Muttering to himself, he grabbed his cell phone from the charger, put it into his breast pocket with his reading glasses, slipped his gun into his belt holster, and left the room. By the time he reached the lobby, the pain had receded and he was feeling almost human again. That, of course, only reinforced his own personal golden rule. Ignore the pain and it would go away. Besides, a Buchanan could tough anything out.
It was a night to remember.
Michelle had never attended such an extravagant affair before, and as she stood on the steps overlooking the hotel ballroom, she felt like Alice about to fall through the looking glass into Wonderland.
There were flowers everywhere, beautiful spring flowers in sculptured urns on the marble floors and in crystal vases on all the white linen tablecloths. In the very center of the ballroom, beneath a magnificent crystal chandelier, was a cluster of giant hothouse-nurtured magnolia trees in full bloom. Their heavenly fragrance filled the air.
Waiters moved smoothly through the crowd carrying silver trays with fluted champagne glasses while others rushed from table to table lighting long, white tapered candles.
Mary Ann Winters, a friend since childhood days, stood by Michelle's side taking it all in.
"I'm out of my element here," Michelle whispered. "I feel like an awkward teenager."
"You don't look like one," Mary Ann said. "I might as well be invisible. I swear every man is staring at you."
"No, they're staring at my obscenely tight dress. How could anything look so plain and ordinary on a hanger and so -- "
"So devastatingly sexy on you? It clings in all the right places. Face it, you've got a killer figure."
"I should never have spent so much money on a dress."
"For heaven's sake, Michelle, it's an Armani...and you got it for a song, I might add."
Michelle self-consciously brushed her hand down the side of the soft fabric. She thought about how much she'd paid for the dress and decided she would have to wear it at least twenty times to make it cost-effective. She wondered if other women did that -- rationalized a frivolous expense to appease the guilt. There were so many more important things she could have used the money for, and when, in heaven's name, was she ever going to have another opportunity to wear this beautiful dress again? Not in Bowen, she thought. Not in a million years.
"What was I thinking? I never should have let you talk me into buying this dress."
Mary Ann impatiently brushed a strand of white blond hair back over her shoulder. "Don't you dare start in complaining about the cost again. You never spend any money on yourself. I'll bet it's the first really gorgeous dress you've ever owned, isn't it? You're absolutely beautiful tonight. Promise me you'll stop worrying and enjoy yourself."
Michelle nodded. "You're right. I'll stop worrying."
"Good. Now let's go mingle. There's hors d'oeuvres and champagne out in the courtyard, and we've got to eat at least a thousand dollars' worth each. That's what the tickets cost. I'll meet you there."
Her friend had just gone down the stairs, when Dr. Cooper spotted Michelle and motioned for her to join him. He was the chief of surgery at Brethren Hospital, where she had been moonlighting the past month. Cooper was usually reserved, but the champagne had rid him of his inhibitions, and he was quite affectionate. And effervescent. He kept telling her how happy he was that she was using the tickets he'd given her and how pretty she looked all dressed up. Michelle thought that if Dr. Cooper got any happier, he was going to pass out in the soup.
A few minutes later, Cooper's wife joined them with another older couple in tow. Michelle used the opportunity to sneak away. She walked around into the adjacent hallway with the bank of elevators.
And that's when she noticed him. He was leaning against a pillar, hunched over, tilted protectively to one side. The man was tall, broad-shouldered, well built, like an athlete, she thought. But there was a sickly gray pallor to his complexion, and as she walked toward him, she saw him grimace and grab his stomach.
He was definitely in trouble. She touched his arm to get his attention just as the elevator doors opened. He staggered upright and looked down at her. His gray eyes were glazed with pain.
"Do you need help?"
He answered her by throwing up all over her.
She couldn't get out of the way because he'd grabbed hold of her arm. His knees buckled then and she knew he was going to go down. She wrapped her arms around his waist and tried to ease him to the floor, but he lurched forward at the same time, taking her with him.
Theo's head was spinning. He landed on top of the woman. He heard her groan and desperately tried to find the strength to get up. He thought he might be dying and he didn't think that would be such a bad thing if death would make the pain go away. It was unbearable now. His stomach rolled again, and another wave of intense agony cut through him. He wondered if this was what it felt like to be stabbed over and over again. He passed out then, and when he next opened his eyes, he was flat on his back and she was leaning over him.
He tried to bring her face into focus. She had pretty blue eyes, more violet than blue, he thought, and freckles on the bridge of her nose. Then, as suddenly as it had stopped, the fire started burning in his side again, so much worse than before.
A spasm wrenched his stomach, and he jerked. "Son of a bitch."
The woman was talking to him, but he couldn't understand what she was saying. And what the hell was she doing to him? Was she robbing him? Her hands were everywhere, tugging at his jacket, his tie, his shirt. She was trying to straighten out his legs. She was hurting him, damn it, and every time he tried to push her hands away, they came back to poke and prod some more.
He felt her open his jacket, knew she could see the gun holstered above his hip. He was crazed with pain now, couldn't seem to think straight. He only knew he couldn't let her take his weapon.
She was a damned talkative mugger. He'd give her that. She looked like one of those J. Crew models. Sweet, he thought. No, she wasn't sweet. She kept hurting him.
"Look, lady, you can take my wallet, but you're not getting my gun. Got that?" He could barely get the words out through his gritted teeth.
Her hand pressed into his side. He reacted instinctively, knocking her back. He thought he might have connected with something soft because he heard her yell before he went under again.
Theo didn't know how long he was out, but when he opened his eyes, the bright lights made him squint. Where the hell was he? He couldn't summon up enough energy to move. He thought he might be on a table. It was hard, cold.
"Where am I?" His mouth was so dry, he slurred the question.
"You're in Brethren Hospital, Mr. Buchanan." The man's voice came from behind him, but Theo couldn't see him.
"Did they catch her?"
"He's loopy." A female voice he didn't recognize made the comment.
Theo suddenly realized he wasn't in any pain. He felt good, in fact. Real good. Like he could fly. Odd, though, he didn't have the strength to move his arms. A mask was placed over his mouth and nose. He turned his head to get away from it.
"Are you getting sleepy, Mr. Buchanan?"
He turned his head again and saw her. Blue Eyes. She looked like an angel, all golden. Wait a minute. What the hell was she doing here? Wait...
"Mike, are you going to be able to see what you're doing? That eye looks bad."
"How'd it happen?" the voice behind Theo's head asked.
"He clipped me."
"The patient decked you?"
"That's right." She was staring into Theo's eyes when she answered. She had a green mask on, but he knew she was smiling.
He was in such a happy daze now and so sleepy, he was having trouble keeping his eyes open. Conversation swirled around him, but none if it made any sense.
A woman's voice. "Where did you find him, Dr. Renard?"
"At a party."
Another woman leaned over him. "Hubba, hubba."
"Was it love at first sight?"
"You decide. He threw up all over me and ruined my new dress."
Someone laughed. "Sounds like love to me. I'll bet he's married. All the good-looking men are married. This one's sure built. Did you check out the goods, Annie?"
"I hope our patient is sleeping."
"Not yet," a male voice said. "But he isn't going to remember anything."
"Where's the assist?"
There seemed to be a party going on. Theo thought there were at least twenty or thirty people in the room with him. Why was it so damned cold? And who was making all the clatter? He was thirsty. His mouth felt like it was full of cotton. Maybe he ought to go get a drink. Yeah, that's what he would do.
"Where's Dr. Cooper?"
"Probably passed out in the dessert by now." Blue Eyes answered the question. Theo loved the sound of her voice. It was so damned sexy.
"So you saw Cooper at the party?"
"Uh-huh," Blue Eyes answered. "He wasn't on call tonight. He works hard. It was nice to see him having a good time. Mary Ann's probably having a great time too."
"You." Theo struggled to get the word out. Still, he'd gotten her attention because when he opened his eyes, she was leaning over him, blocking out the glaring light above him.
"It's time for you to go to sleep, Mr. Buchanan."
"He's fighting it."
"What..." Theo began.
"What do you want from me?"
The man hiding behind him answered. "Mike wants your appendix, Mr. Buchanan."
It sounded good to him. He was always happy to accommodate a beautiful woman. "Okay," he whispered. "It's in my wallet."
"It's about time," the man said.
Theo heard the chair squeak behind him, then the stranger's voice telling him to take deep breaths. Theo finally figured out who the man behind him was. Damn if it wasn't Willie Nelson, and he was singing to him, something about Blue Eyes cryin' in the rain.
It was one hell of a party.
Theo slept through recovery. When he awoke the following morning, he was in a hospital bed. The side rails were up, and he was hooked to an IV. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind. What the hell had happened to him? He couldn't remember.
It was past ten o'clock when he opened his eyes again. She was there, standing beside the bed, pulling the sheets up around his waist. Blue Eyes. He hadn't imagined her after all.
She looked different today. She was still dressed in surgical scrubs, but her hair wasn't hidden underneath a cap. It was down around her shoulders, and the color was a deep, rich auburn.
She was much prettier than he remembered.
She noticed he was awake. "Good morning. How are you feeling? Still a little drowsy?"
He struggled to sit up. She reached for the controls and pushed a button. The bed slowly rose. Theo felt a tugging in his side and a mild stinging sensation.
"Tell me when."
"That's good," he said. "Thanks."
She picked up his chart and started writing while he blatantly stared at her. He felt vulnerable and awkward sitting in bed in a hospital gown. He couldn't think of anything clever to say to her. For the first time in his life he wanted to be charming, but he didn't have the faintest idea how to go about it. He was a die-hard workaholic, and there simply wasn't room for social graces in his life.
"Do you remember what happened last night?" she asked, glancing up from her notes.
"I had surgery."
"Yes. Your appendix was removed. Another fifteen minutes and you definitely would have ruptured."
"I remember bits and pieces. What happened to your eye?"
She smiled as she started writing in his chart again. "I didn't duck fast enough."
"Who are you?"
"Someone called you Mike."
Michelle closed the folder, put the lid back on her ink pen, and tucked it into her pocket. She gave him her full attention. The surgical nurses were right. Theo Buchanan was gorgeous...and sexy as hell. But none of that should matter. She was his physician, nothing more, nothing less, yet she couldn't help reacting to him as any woman naturally would react to such a fit specimen. His hair was sticking up and he needed a shave, but he was still sexy. There wasn't anything wrong with her noticing that...unless, of course, he noticed her noticing.
"You just asked me a question, didn't you?" She drew a blank.
He could tell he'd rattled her, but he didn't know why. "I heard someone call you Mike."
She nodded. "Yes. The staff calls me Mike. It's short for Michelle."
"Michelle's a pretty name."
It was all coming back to Theo now. He was at a party, and there was this beautiful woman in a slinky black evening gown. She was breathtaking. He remembered that. She had killer blue eyes and Willie Nelson was with her. He was singing. No, that couldn't be right. Obviously, his head hadn't quite cleared yet.
"You were talking to me...after the surgery," he said.
"In recovery. Yes," she agreed. "But you were doing most of the talking." She was smiling again. "and by the way, the answer's no. I won't marry you."
He smiled, sure she was joking. "I don't remember being in pre-op. I remember the pain though. It hurt like a son of a..."
"I'm sure it did."
"You did the surgery, didn't you? I didn't imagine that?"
"Yes, I did the surgery."
She was backing out of the room. He didn't want her to leave just yet. He wanted to find out more about her. "You don't look old enough to be a surgeon." Stupid, he thought, but it was the best he could come up with at the moment.
"I hear that a lot."
"You look like you should be in college." That statement, he decided, was worse than stupid.
She couldn't resist. "High school, actually. They let me operate for extra credit."
"Dr. Renard? May I interrupt?" A male aide was standing in the hallway, shifting a large cardboard box under his arm.
"Dr. Cooper filled this box with medical supplies from his office for your clinic," the young man said. "What do you want me to do with it? Dr. Cooper left it at the nurses' station, but they wanted it moved. It was in the way."
"Would you mind taking it down to my locker?"
"It's too big, Dr. Renard. It won't fit. It isn't heavy, though. I could carry it out to your car."
"My father has the car," she said. She glanced around, then looked at Theo. "Would you mind if Bobby left my box here? My father will carry it down to the car for me just as soon as he arrives."
"I don't mind," Theo said.
"I won't be seeing you again. I'm going home today, but don't worry. You're in good hands. Dr. Cooper's Chief of Surgery here at Brethren, and he'll take good care of you."
"In the swamp."
"Are you kidding?"
"No," she said. She smiled again, and he noticed the little dimple in her left cheek. "Home is a little town that's pretty much surrounded by swamp, and I can't wait to get back there."
"Yes, I am," she admitted. "I'm a small-town girl at heart. It isn't a very glamorous life, and that's what I like about it."
"You like living in the swamp." It was a statement, not a question, but she responded anyway.
"You sound shocked."
"No, just surprised."
"You're from a big, sprawling city, so you'd probably hate it."
"Why do you say that?"
She shrugged. "You seem too...sophisticated."
He didn't know if that was a compliment or a criticism. "Sometimes you can't go home. I think I read that in a book once. Besides, you look like a New Orleans kind of woman to me."
"I love New Orleans. It's a wonderful place to come for dinner."
"But it won't ever be home."
"So, are you the town doctor?"
"One of several," she said. "I'm opening a clinic there. It's not very fancy, but there's a real need. So many of the people don't have the resources to get regular medical care."
"Sounds like they're very lucky to have you."
She shook her head. "Oh, no, I'm the lucky one." Then she laughed. "That sounded saintly, didn't it? I am the lucky one, though. The people are wonderful, at least I think they are, and they give me far more than I can give them." When she spoke, her whole face lit up. "You know what I'm going to like best?"
"No games. For the most part, they're honest, ordinary people trying to scrape a living together. They don't waste a lot of time on foolishness."
"So, everyone loves everyone else?" He scoffed at the notion.
"No, of course not," she replied. "But I'll know my enemies. They won't sneak up behind me and blindside me. It isn't their style." She smiled again. "They'll get right in my face, and I'm going to like that. Like I said, no games. After the residency I just finished, that's going to be a refreshing change."
"You won't miss the big beautiful office and all the trappings?"
"Not really. There are rewards other than money. Oh sure, it would be great to have the supplies and equipment we need, but we'll make do. I've spent a lot of years getting ready for this...besides, I made a promise."
He kept asking her questions to keep her talking. He was interested in hearing about her town but not nearly as much as he was fascinated with her expressions. There were such passion and joy in her voice, and her eyes sparkled as she talked about her family and friends and the good she hoped she could do.
She reminded him of how he had felt about life when he had first started practicing the law, before he'd become so cynical. He too had wanted to change the world, to make it a better place. Rebecca had changed all that. Looking back, he realized he had failed miserably.
"I've worn you out, going on and on about my hometown. I'll let you rest now," she said.
"When can I get out of here?"
"That's Dr. Cooper's call, but if it were up to me, I'd keep you another night. You had quite a nasty infection. You need to take it easy for a couple of weeks, and don't forget to take your antibiotics. Good luck, Theo."
And then she was gone, and he'd lost the only chance he had to find out more about her. He didn't even know where her home was. He fell asleep trying to figure out a way to see her again.
Copyright © 2002 by Julie Garwood