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Dr. Jeremy Fortune stepped out the front door of the Red Rock Medical Center and headed for the parking lot, his mood dark as the storm clouds that gathered overhead.
It had been over a month since his father had disappeared on what would have been the older man's wedding day, and in spite of all the efforts to find him, there'd been very few leads and the trail had gone cold.
William Fortune had been involved in a car accident that took place a hundred miles from the Red Rock church in which he was to be wed. The other driver, a young woman, had died upon impact. But for days, authorities hadn't realized a second vehicle had been involved until they spotted William's silver Mercedes, which had plummeted down an embankment and into a deeply wooded area, where it had been partially hidden by brush and rocks.
There hadn't been any sign of William, thoughno blood and no indication that he'd been injured or worse. It was as if he'd vanished without a trace.
A photograph of Molly, his first wife, had been found tucked into his visor, which had led some of the tabloids to report that he'd been running away. But Jeremy knew better than that.
William Fortune had been eagerly awaiting the ceremony that would unite him in holy matrimony to Lily, the widow of his cousin Ryan. And he'd been looking forward to spending the rest of his life with the woman he'd recently come to love and respect. Besides, his family and his close friends were important to him, and he wouldn't have left without telling any of them. Not of his own accord, anyway.
At first, Jeremy had feared that his father had been kidnapped, but there were no ransom notes found, no phone calls demanding money.
So where was he?
As a driven and dedicated orthopedic surgeon, Jeremy relied on logic and reason to solve problems, which he always faced head-on. But there wasn't anything logical about his father's disappearance.
Jeremy didn't usually trust feelings or hunches, but he couldn't shake the belief that his father was still alive and out theresomewhere.
Maybe that was because Jeremy had lost too many family members already and wasn't going to accept the possibility that he might have lost another.
Nevertheless, he wouldn't leave Texas and return to California until his father was foundone way or another. So he'd taken a leave of absence from his medical practice in Sacramento, which didn't seem to bother him nearly as much as he'd thought it would.
He suspected that had something to do with the fact that, even before coming to Red Rock for his father's wedding, he'd been reevaluating his life choices. And he hoped that a little distance would help him sort it all out.
Still, to keep himself busy during the day and to make himself useful, he'd been volunteering his time at the Red Rock Medical Center, which the Fortune Foundation helped fund. And today was no different.
He glanced at his wristwatch. It was just past four-thirty and a little too early to head for the restaurant. He was meeting his brother and new sister-in-law for dinner at Red tonighthis favorite local restaurantand he didn't want to drive all the way back to the Double Crown Ranch, where he'd been staying.
Maybe he ought to use the extra time to stop by the bookstore and pick up a couple novels before meeting Drew and Deanna. He'd been battling insomnia lately, so he'd been doing a lot of reading.
As his shoes crunched along the gritty, leaf- and twig-littered sidewalk, a somber mood continued to weigh him down, which seemed to happen whenever his mind wasn't on his work and his patients.
Oddly enough, it had lifted last nightduring a dream of all things. He wasn't one to give nocturnal fantasies much thought, but this one had been especially unusualand real.
The scene had come upon him during the wee hours, but in his mind's eye, the afternoon sun had cast a golden glow upon a tree-lined street much like some of those that could be found in the nicer neighborhoods in Red Rock.
He'd pulled into the driveway of a two-story home, which had been freshly paintedwhite, with green and black trim. The lawn was lush and neatly mowed, the plants and shrubs well manicured. A petite woman sat in a wicker rocking chair on the front porch, near a black window box that was chock-full of brightly colored flowers.
It was, he decided, a typical Norman Rockwell scene, and his heart soared upon envisioning it.
He'd tried to get a glimpse of the woman's face, but she was looking down at a pink-flannel-wrapped bundle in her arms, her honey-brown hair hanging in a soft tumble of curls that blocked his view.
"I'm home," he'd said, as he'd climbed from the car and shut the door. Then he'd hurried up the sidewalk to greet the mother and child, his steps light. The somber mood that had been plaguing him recently had disappeared completely, leaving him happier and more contented than he'd remembered being in a long, long time.
As the woman turned to face him, so he would finally be able to get a good glimpse of her, the dream had suddenly ended, transporting him from the springtime to winter, from day to night.
He knew that the subconscious did crazy things while the mind and body slept, yet for a brief moment, he'd felt whole and alive. And when he awoke, he realized what he'd been missing in his outwardly successful lifea wife and a family of his own.
Too bad he couldn't put a name and a face to the woman he'd imagined in his dream. But it really didn't matter. Her image had been merely symbolic, a sign of what he'd been lacking.
As he neared the parking space where he'd left his car earlier in the day, he heard footsteps behind him and glanced over his shoulder to see a petite woman approaching. She wore a pair of slender-fit denim jeans, a snug white T-shirt and a pink jacket to ward off the chill. In her arms, she held a baby wrapped in a blue shawl. She was studying the child, so he couldn't quite see her face.
But damn With hair the shade of golden honey, she could at least pass for the woman in his dream.
If he were the kind of guy to believe in premonitions, he just might wonder if she was a walking, talking dream come true.
He wasn't, though. But he turned around just the same, drawn to her for some other reason he'd yet to figure out.
As she looked up and spotted him, her lips parted and her steps slowed. She had the face of a magazine cover girl, delicate features and expressive blue eyes with thick, dark lashes.
"Excuse me," she said, adjusting the strap of the diaper bag that hung on her shoulder. "Are you a doctor?"
Jeremy, who was still wearing a lab coat over his street clothes, punctuated a nod by saying, "Yes, I am."
"Oh, good. I was hoping to have the baby examined, and I wondered if if you could take a look at him."
"I'm not a pediatrician," Jeremy said. "I'm an orthopedic surgeon. The clinic is still open, though. I'm sure someone will be able to see him today."
She glanced over her shoulder, then to the right and the left. "I can't wait. And I'm worried about the baby. I just want to make sure that he's okay."
"What seems to be the problem?" he asked. Did the child have a fever or any particular symptoms?
"Nothing really, I suppose." She looked at the little guy in her arms, then back to Jeremy. "I just want to make sure he's healthy."
That was odd, he thought. But he eased closer to look at the baby, who appeared to be about two months old. On the upside, his eyes were bright and alert, his cheeks were plump and his little arms were filled out. There was no obvious reason to suspect he was sick or had been neglected.
Jeremy looked back at the mother, who seemed a little fidgety. "Like I said, I'm not a pediatrician. And without an actual exam, it's hard to say for sure. But I don't see anything that would make me think that he isn't healthy."
Her nervous expression melted into one of relief. "Oh, thank goodness."
Jeremy wasn't sure why she was so anxious, why she wouldn't go inside and join the other patients waiting to be seen.
"Just as a side note," he added, "the services of the clinic are free for those who can't"
"Thank you, but it's not that. I was already inside. I waited for more than an hour, and there were still several people in front of me. But I really need to get home."
To a husband, he suspected. And he couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed by the realization.
Of course, he wasn't going to put much stock in a crazy dream and a chance meeting with a woman who bore a slight resemblance to the one he'd envisioned last night. But it wouldn't hurt to check the baby for bumps and bruises.
He reached out to stroke the child's cheek, and the little one grabbed his finger, latching on tight and causing his heart to flip-flop. What was that reaction all about?
The woman glanced at her wristwatch, and her breath caught. "I'm sorry. I really need to go."
Then she thanked him for his time and took off, walking at a brisk pace, heading for the street.
Jeremy stood in the parking lot for the longest time, watching as she turned toward the bus stop.
Was she in some kind of trouble? Was she involved in an abusive relationship?
Had sheor the babybeen hurt?
Each time a question struck his mind, it exploded into several others. Maybe he should have tried harder to get her into the clinic.
Moments later, he glanced at his own watch. He had plenty of time on his hands and wasn't in any hurry. So, what the hell?
He strode back to the building he'd just left, entered the waiting room and made his way to the registration desk. Millie Arden was on duty today, so he asked if she had a minute.
"Of course, Doctor." The matronly woman with graying hair, a ruddy complexion and a warm smile looked up from her work. "What is it?"
"Do you remember seeing a mother in her twenties leave here a few minutes ago? She had light brown hair and was wearing jeans and a pink jacket. Her baby was wrapped in a blue shawl."
"Yes. She signed in as " Millie glanced down at the list of patients in front of her and ran her finger along the names. "Here it is. Kirsten Allen."
Was that her actual name? Or a phony moniker for her to hide behind?
Again one question triggered several more.
"Has she visited the clinic before?" he asked.
"Just a moment. I'll check." Millie turned to her computer and, after a brief search, said, "It doesn't appear that she has."
Jeremy really ought to let it go, but he couldn't seem to do that. Not when Kirsten Allen had reminded him of the woman in his dream.
Hell, she even had a baby.
Surely it had been a coincidence, a fluke of some kind.
But during the short time that he'd spent with her, his blue funk had actually liftedand it had yet to return.
After getting off the city bus at the intersection just a few blocks from Lone Star Lane, Kirsten carried little Anthony home, hoping to get back before her brother Max learned that she'd taken his son to the clinic.
Their relationship had always been a little shaky, more so right now. He resented what he called her interference in his life. Truth be told, she knew she'd clearly overstepped her bounds by taking Anthony for a medical evaluation, but she'd been desperate to find out if he was healthy, or if he had any undiagnosed problems that needed to be treateda condition that could be serious.
Things like well-baby checkups and immunizations could wait until Max decided it was necessary, but her maternal instincts had kicked in and she felt compelled to make sure that Anthony's mother hadn't neglected something important.
And that was definitely possible. A couple days ago, Courtney, her brother's ex-girlfriend, had dropped off the precious little baby at Kirsten's house, announcing that Max was his father, that she'd grown tired of motherhood and that it was his turn to parent.
Kirsten had never liked Courtney, although she'd always kept her opinion to herself. But it had been difficult
to hold her tongue when the flighty young woman handed the baby to a surprised Max, offering him only a car seat, a small package of disposable diapers and a bottle of formula. Then she'd taken off without even looking back.
It was safe to say that Anthony would probably be better off without Courtney in his life, especially since he was young enough not to be traumatized by her desertion. In fact, Kirsten couldn't understand how Max had gotten involved with a woman like her in the first placeor what he'd ever seen in her.
Still, she had to give her brother credit for stepping up to the plate. He might have been young and footloose in the past, but he had accepted responsibility for Anthony.
And, of course, so had Kirsten, which was why she'd taken him to the clinic today. But since the wait had been longer than she'd expected it to be, she would just have to be content to know that, from a physician's perspective, the baby boy appeared to be healthy.
Of course, a more thorough exam might reveal otherwise, so she still felt a twinge of uncertainty.
She knew that Max would see reason eventually and come to the conclusion that an appointment for a well-baby checkup was necessary. But that only made Kirsten think about immunizations, a subject Courtney had never even broached.
And that was another reason she'd insisted that Max try to find Courtney and quiz her about those kinds of details. Of course, her insistence had been her first misstep.