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Sweat streaming from his temples, strong hands clenched tight on the parallel bars that supported him, Mac Mac-ready put his full weight on his left leg. He felt a sharp pain, but the leg held. He gritted his teeth to keep from groaning. So far, so good.
Mac kept his eyes focused on the area between the bars in front of him, willing his leg to work. He took an easy step with his right leg, then called on the left again. The pain was less sharp the second time he put his weight on the restructured limb. He could handle the pain. More important, the leg had stayed under him. He glanced across the room at his friend and agent, Andy Dennison, and grinned.
Mac Macready could walk again.
"You did it, Mac," Andy said, crossing the room to slap him on the back. "It's great to see you back on your feet."
"About time," Mac said. "I've spent the better part of two years trying to get this damned leg of mine back into shape." A sharp pain seared up his leg, but he refused to sit down, not now, when he had just made it back onto his feet. He took more of his weight on his arms and kept walking. A bead of sweat trickled between his shoulder blades before it caught on his sleeveless T-shirt. He summoned another smile. "Give me a couple of months, and I'll be ready to start catching passes again for the Tornadoes."
Mac caught the skeptical look on Andy's face before his agent said, "Sure, Mac. Whatever you say."
He understood Andy's skepticism. Mac had said the same thing after every operation. Who would have suspected a broken legall right, so maybe it had been shatteredwould be so difficult to mend? But his body had rejected the pins they had used to put things back together again at ankle and hip. They had finally had to invent something especially for him.
Then the long bones in his leg hadn't grown straight and had needed to be broken and set again. He had fought complications caused by infection. Finally, when he had pushed too hard to get well, he had ended up back in a cast.
The football injury had been devastating, coming as it had at the end of Mac's first phenomenal season with the Texas Tornadoes. His future couldn't have been brighter. He was a star receiver, with more touchdown catches than any other rookie in the league. His team was headed for the Super Bowl. With one crushing tackle, everything had fallen apart. The sportscasters had called it a careerending injury. Mac wasn't willing to concede the issue.
"Good work, Mac," the physical therapist said, reaching out to help him into the wheelchair waiting for him at the end of the parallel bars. "Put your arm around me."
He flashed the young woman a killer grin, inwardly cursing the fact that after six measly steps he was on the verge of collapse. "Better watch out, Hartwell. Now that I'm back on my feet, I'm going to give your fiance some serious competition."
Diane Hartwell blushed. Most women did when Mac turned on the charm. He had the kind of blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks that made female heads swivel to take a second look. Mac wondered what she would think if she knew the truth about him.
Diane answered wryly, "I'm sure George would gladly trade me to you for an autographed football."
"Done," Mac said brightly, biting back a grimace as Diane bent his injured leg and placed his foot on the wheelchair footrest.
"I was only kidding," Diane said.
"I wasn't," Mac said, smiling up at her. "Tell your fiancé I'll be glad to autograph that football for him anytime."
"Thanks, Mac," Diane said. "I appreciate it."
"Think nothing of it, Hartwell. And tell George to hang on to that ball. Someday it'll be worth something."
Once Mac resumed his career, he would break every record in the book. He had that kind of determination. And he had been that good. Of course, that was before the accident. Everybodyexcept himselfquestioned whether he would ever be that good again.
It had been touch and go for a while whether he would even walk. But Mac had known he would walk again, and without the aid of a brace. He had done it today. It seemed he was the only one who wasn't surprised.
He had known he would succeed, because he had beaten the odds before. When he was eight, he had suffered from acute myelocytic leukemia. It should have killed him. He had recovered from the childhood disease and gone on to win the Heisman Trophy and be drafted in the first round by the Texas Tornadoes. Mac had no intention of giving up his dreams of a future in football.
Andy wheeled him down the hospital corridor to his room. "When do you get out of here?" his agent asked.
"The doctor said once I could stand on my leg, he would release me. I guess that means I can get out of here anytime now."
"The press will want a statement," Andy said as he stopped the wheelchair beside Mac's hospital bed. "Do you want to talk to them? Or do you want me to do it?"
Mac thought of facing a dozen TV cameras from a wheelchair. Or standing with crutches. Or wavering on his own two feet. "Tell them I'll be back next season."
"Maybe that's not such a good"
"Tell them I'll be back," Mac said, staring Andy in the eye.
Andy had once been a defensive lineman and wore a coveted Super Bowl ring on his right hand. He understood what it meant to play football. And what it meant to stop. He straightened the tie at his bull neck, shrugged his broad shoulders and smoothed the tie over his burgeoning belly, before he said, "You got it, Mac."
"Thanks, Andy. I am coming back, you know."
"Sure, Mac," Andy said.
Mac could see his agent didn't believe him any more than the doctors and nurses who had treated him over the past two years. Even Hartwell, though she encouraged him, didn't believe he would achieve the kind of mobility he needed to play in the pros. Mac needed to get away somewhere and heal himself. He knew he could do it. After all, he had done it once before.
"Where can I get in touch with you?" Andy asked.
"I'm headed to a ranch in northwest Texas owned by some friends of mine. I have an open invitation to visit, and I'm going to take them up on it. I'll call you when I get there and give you a number where I can be reached."
"Good enough. Take care, Mac. Don't"
"Don't finish that sentence, Andy. Not if you're going to warn me not to get my hopes up."
Andy shook his head. "I was going to say don't be a fool and kill yourself trying to get well too fast."
"I'm going to get my job back from the kid who took over for me," Mac said in a steely voice. "And I'm going to do it this year."
Andy didn't argue further, just shook Mac's hand and left him alone in the hospital room.
Mac looked around at the sterile walls, the white sheets, the chrome rails on the bed, listened to the muffled sounds that weren't quite silence and inhaled the overwhelming antiseptic smell that made him want to gag. He had spent too much of his life in hospital bedsmore than any human being ought to have to. He wanted out of here, the sooner the better.
He could hardly wait to get to the wide open spaces of Zach and Rebecca Whitelaw's ranch, Hawk's Pride. More than Zach or Rebecca or the land, he had a yearning to see their daughter Jewel again. Jewel was the first of eight kids who had been adopted by the Whitelaws, and she had returned to Hawk's Pride after college to manage Camp LittleHawk, the camp for kids with cancer that Rebecca had started years ago.
Mac remembered his first impressions of Jewelhuge Mississippi-mud-brown eyes, shoulder-length dirt-brown hair and an even dirtier looking white T-shirt and jeans. She had been five years old to his eight, and she had been leaning against the corral at Camp LittleHawk watching him venture onto horseback for the first time.
"Don't be scared," Jewel had said.
"I'm not," he'd retorted, glancing around at the other five kids in the corral with him. The horses were stopped in a circle, and the wrangler was working with a little boy who was even more scared than he was.
"Buttercup wouldn't hurt a fly," Jewel reassured him.
He remembered feeling mortified at the thought of riding a horse named Buttercup. And terrified that Buttercup would throw him off her broad back and trample him underfoot. Even though he'd been dying of cancer, he'd been afraid of getting killed. Life, he had learned, was precious.
"I'm not scared," he lied. He wished he could reach up and tug his baseball cap down tighter over his bald head, but he was afraid to let go of his two-handed grip on the saddle horn.
Jewel scooted under the bottom rail of the corral on her hands and knees, which explained how she had gotten so dirty, and walked right up to the horseall right, it was only a pony, but it was still bigwithout fear. He sat frozen as she patted Buttercup's graying jaw and crooned to her.
"What are you saying?" he demanded.
"I'm telling Buttercup to be good. I'm telling her you're sick and"
"I'm dying," he blurted out. "I'll be dead by Christmas." It was June. He was currently in remission, but the last time he'd been sick, he'd heard the doctors figuring he had about six months to live. He knew it was only a matter of time before the disease came back. It always did.
"My momma died and my daddy and my brother," Jewel said. "I thought I was gonna die, too, but I didn't." She reached up and touched the crisscrossing pink scars on her face. "I had to stay in the hospital till I got well."
"Then you know it's a rotten place to be," he said.
She nodded. "Zach and 'Becca came and took me away. I never want to go back."
"Yeah, well I don't have much choice."
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because that's where you go when you're sick."
"But you're well now," she said, looking up at him with serious brown eyes. "Except you don't have any hair yet. But don't worry. 'Becca says it'll grow back."
He flushed and risked letting go of the horn to tug the cap down. It was one of the many humiliations he had enduredlosing his hair along with his privacy and his childhood. He had always wanted to go to camp like his sister, Sadie, but he had been too sick. Then some lady had opened this place. He had jumped at the chance to get away from home. Away from the hospital.
"Your hair doesn't grow back till you stop getting sick," he pointed out to the fearless kid standing with her cheek next to the pony's.
"So, don't get sick again," she said.
He snickered. "Yeah. Right. It doesn't work like that."
"Just believe you can stay well, and you will," she said.
The circle of horses began to move again, and she headed back toward the fence. It was then he noticed her limp. "Hey!" he shouted after her. "What happened to your leg?"
"It got broken," she said matter-of-factly.
Mac hadn't thought much about it then, but now he knew the pain she must have endured to walk again. Jewel would know what he was feeling as he got out of the hospital for what he hoped would be the last time. Jewel would understand.
After that first meeting, he and Jewel had encountered each other often over the next several years. He had beaten the leukemia and returned as a teenager to become a counselor at Camp LittleHawk. That was when Jewel had become his best friend. Not his girlfriend. His best friend.
He already had a girlfriend back home in Dallas. Her name was Louise and he called her Lou and was violently in love with her. He had met Lou when she came to the junior-senior prom with another guy. She had only been in the eighth grade. By the time he was a senior and Lou was a freshman, they were going steady.
He told Jewel all about the agonies of being in love, and though she hadn't yet taken the plunge, she was all sympathetic ears. Jewel was the best buddy a guy could have, a confidante, a pal. A soul mate. He could tell her anything and, in fact, had told her some amazingly private things.
Like how he had cried the first time he had endured a procedure called a back-stick, where they stuck a needle in your back to figure out your blood count. How he had wet the bed once in the hospital rather than ask for a bedpan. And how humiliating it had been when the nurse treated him like a baby and put the thermometer into an orifice other than his mouth.
It was astonishing to think he could have been so frank with Jewel. But Jewel didn't only listen to his woes, she shared her own. So he knew how jealous and angry she had been when Zach and Rebecca adopted another little girl two years older than her named Rolleen. And how she had learned to accept each new child a little more willingly, until the youngest, Colt, had come along, and he had felt like her own flesh-and-blood baby brother.
Mac had also been there at the worst moment of her life. He had lost a good friend that fateful Fourth of July. And Jewel Jewel had lost much more. After that hot, horrible summer day, she had refused to see him again. So far, he had respected her wish to be left alone. But there was an empty place inside him she had once helped to fill.
He had received an invitation to her wedding the previous spring. It was hard to say what his feelings had been. Joy for her, because he knew how hard it must have been for her to move past what had happened to her. And sadness, too, because he knew the closeness they had enjoyed in the past would be transferred to her husband.
Then had come the announcement, a few weeks before the wedding, that it had been canceled. He had wondered what had gone wrong, wondered which of them had called it off and worried about what she must be feeling.
He would never pry, but he was curious. After all, he and Jewel had once known everything there was to know about each other. He had picked up the phone to call her, but put it down. Too many years had passed.
Mac had never had another woman friend like Jewel. Sex always got in the way. Or rather, the woman's expectations. And his inability to fulfill them.
What kind of man is still a virgin at twenty-five? Mac mused.
An angry man. A onetime romantic fool who waited through college for his high school sweetheart to grow up, only to be left for another guy.