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Tess Morgan looked at the giant who was leaning in the doorway to the waiting room, his left leg, up to his knee, in a walking cast. She blinked, releasing the last few teardrops on her lashes. Absently she felt the tears cascade down her face as she tried to compose herself in front of an incredible-looking - hulk!
Oh, my, he's big. He filled the doorway with his immense frame, thick-muscled neck, broad shoulders and chest. That was her first impression of the stranger, but it was quickly chased away by others - jet-black hair that curled at the nape of his neck, full mouth turned slightly down in worry, the handsome bronzed planes of his face; and his steel gray eyes, penetrating in their survey of her.
"Ma'am, are you all right?" He hobbled a few feet into the waiting room.
She knew she should respond, but in her weakened emotional state she was at a loss for words. He towered over her. She slowly craned her neck upward past the leg cast, the narrow waist, the wide expanse of chest, the solid neck, to look into his puzzled expression.
Words suddenly flooded her mind. She bolted to her feet, nearly knocking the man backward. "I'm fine. Really, I am. Nothing to worry about, but thanks for asking. Sometimes I just need agood cry. It cleanses the soul, don't you think?" She paused, fluttered her hand in the air and continued, "Well, anyway, it helps me to keep going when things are a little tough." As suddenly as she started talking, she came to an abrupt halt at the shocked expression on the stranger's face. Her cheeks, beneath the white makeup, flamed as red as her clown nose, which she'd placed on the table next to her.
The best possible solution to this embarrassing situation would be a quick retreat, which would be near impossible in her oversize shoes. She sidestepped the giant, muttering, "Thanks again for your concern."
As she clumsily walked toward the exit, she was all too aware of his perceptive gaze on her back. She could imagine it singeing a path down her spine, and she shivered.
She was about to hasten into the hallway and disappear with a small thread of dignity still in place when he said, "You forgot something."
Her pride, she decided, and spun to face the man. In his grasp lay her red ball nose.
She started to snatch it from his outstretched hand when his long fingers closed around it. He shifted closer, positioning himself in front of her. Disconcerted, Tess found herself gulping.
"Here. The least I can do is fix your nose. I can't do anything, though, about the makeup."
He replaced the ball on her nose. The brush of his fingers against her skin was amazingly gentle and extremely warm, too warm. The touch stirred a fluttering in the pit of her stomach, a sensation she hadn't experienced for several years. The scent of sandalwood swirled about her, setting off alarm signals in her brain.
Tess stared into his gray eyes, caught by the intense look he directed at her. The ball was on her nose, but his fingers hadn't dropped away. Five seconds. Ten. An eternity. She was sure he could hear her heartbeat clamoring against her rib cage. It seemed to drown out all other noise.
When his gaze slid away from hers, his hand returned mercifully to his side. "No decent clown should be without a proper nose," he said, amusement causing his eyes to glint like diamonds in sunlight.
Suddenly, always quick to find humor in life, Tess laughed. "The penalty at the very least would be a pie in the face, which come to think of it might not be so bad since I skipped breakfast this morning. I guess I could compromise with a fruit pie and cover at least one of the food groups."
His grin reached deep in his eyes. "Haven't you heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day?"
"Yes, and I don't usually miss any meals."
His gaze trekked down her length. "That's hard to believe."
She blushed again, something she was doing a lot around this stranger. "My name is Tess Morgan."
"Peter MacPherson." He held out his hand. She slipped hers into his grasp, silently preparing herself for his long fingers to close about hers. Nothing, though, had prepared her for the electric feel his touch produced, as though she had stuck her finger into a socket. She quickly removed her hand from his grasp and edged back to give herself some breathing room.
"Are you visiting a family member?" Tess took another large step back, sandalwood-scented aftershave lotion still teasing her senses.
"No, just a friend."
"I hope it's not too serious."
"No, Tommy should be leaving in a few days."
"Tommy Burns? You visit him often?" She would have remembered seeing this man. He wasn't a person anyone could easily forget.
"Several times, but I usually come in the evening. Today I'm getting my cast off so I decided to see Tommy before I went to the doctor's office across the street. Do you know Tommy?"
"When I'm not wearing all this white makeup, I'm a nurse on this floor. I dress up several times a week to entertain the children. It's a kind of therapy I've developed." The waiting room was warm, and she knew it had nothing to do with the thermostat setting and everything to do with the man standing in front of her. She was sure her white makeup would soon start running in rivulets of sweat down her face.
"How long have you been doing that?"
"Six months, Mr. MacPherson."
He grimaced. "Please don't call me that. My friends call me Mac."
"Okay - Mac," she murmured, wondering what it would be like to be his friend. In the next second she realized being his friend would be too dangerous for her peace of mind. He was a bit too overwhelming for her.
"What made you come up with the idea of clown therapy?"
"I read about a program back East and thought it was a good idea."
"Why were you crying? Something go wrong today?"
His questions, so full of concern, pierced the invisible armor she wore to protect herself. She wasn't sure how to answer him. The truth was she hadn't cried in several years - wasn't sure why she had today. Maybe she was tired of fighting to keep everything in. But how could she tell a stranger that?
Excerpted from Family For Keeps by Margaret Daley Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.