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Nearly a thousand miles from home, Duran Forrester wanted to believe, after all the regretted decisions, frustrations and slams into brick walls over the last months, that this wasn't the biggest mistake of his life.
Then he reminded himself it didn't matter. Even if it was, there was no undoing it because he was fast running out of options. More importantly, he was running out of time.
He glanced in the rearview mirror at his son. Noah, his dark hair ruffled and cheeks flushed, sweat beading on his brow, slumped sideways on the seat asleep, clutching his scruffy stuffed panda in a one-armed hug. Ten minutes ten minutes and they'd be in Luna Hermosa and he'd have Noah at a hospital.
It's only an ear infection. Some antibiotics and painkillers and he'll be okay. He'll be fine. He has to be.
He repeated it to himself as if it were a mantra that could shield him from the fear that struck at him with its cold, sharp edge of panic. And like all the other times, he wondered if this would be when he'd be told it wasn't okay, that his son would never be fine.
Noah shouldn't be here, that much now was obvious. Duran had a long debate with himself over whether or not to bring his son along in the first place. Noah had had enough disappointments in his life and Duran didn't want this trip to be one more. But once he'd found out Duran's destination, Noah had been so excited and after three days of his seven-year-old's persistent wheedling, begging and insisting, Duran finally gave in. Despite his misgivings, he'd convinced himself that the trip, if nothing else, would give him precious time with Noah, a few weeks uninterrupted by work and everything life had recently thrown atthem.
They'd been less than an hour from their destination when things started to go wrong. Noah's temperature spiked, he'd started complaining about his ears hurting and Duran's reason fought his impulse to slam his foot on the accelerator and say to hell with speed limits.
He gripped the steering wheel hard enough to imprint the shape of his hands there, finding it a poor release for the turmoil of worry, frustration, uncertainty and anger that hit him in surges despite his best efforts to keep it shoved to a dark corner of his mind. Mostly everythinghis and Noah's current predicament, the surprises of the past weeks that more often than not had been unwelcomehe could only blame on himself and his recently acquired determination to find out who'd he'd been before Eliza and Luke Forrester had made him their son.
He'd known, since he was younger than Noah, that he'd been adopted, but never had the least desire to find his birth parents until now. His adoptive parents were loving and generous people, devoted to each other and to him, who'd made him feel that it didn't matter why he'd been given away, only that they were blessed in choosing him and that with them was where he belonged.
The why still didn't matter; now and urgently, the who did. Looking at Noah again, he wished, for his son's sake, he had another choice. And he prayed, hard and long, this didn't turn out as badly as when he'd contacted the woman who considered him her biggest mistake. His birth mother.
I didn't want you then. There's nothing I can do for you now. It was a long time ago. My family doesn't know about you and I plan to keep it that way.
No amount of pleas or appeals changed her mind.
But she had given him somethingtwo names and another chance to keep his hope alive.
The first he couldn't allow himself to think about right now.
It was my kind of luck, all bad. It wasn't anything but too much whiskey and one long night with that cowboy, and then he disappeared and I ended up with the two of you.
Two. And just that fast he found out he was a twin. Ry Kincaid hadn't wanted to be found and even less wanted to be called his brother. But neither of them could deny who they were and after an uneasy meeting, had left it unresolved while Duran made it his business to track down the second name on his list.
Jed Garrett. Rancho Piñtada, Luna Hermosa, New Mexico.
His fatherand the man he wanted to meet most and least.
The little girl grinned and Lia Kerrigan smiled back, returning an exuberant hug, accepting a kiss made slightly sticky by Nina's refusal to give up her sucker. Lia only wished these infrequent office visits didn't amount to the majority of time she got to spend with her youngest sister. Then again, for a woman with seven siblings, it was amazing how little time she'd spent with any of them. Her oldest brother she'd never even met, and the others were more like strangers with whom she happened to share a parent.
Old pain, made worse by the knowledge that as much as she cared for Nina, inevitably they would end up with the same distant relationship. Circumstance and the more than thirty years' difference in age would see to that.
Lia immediately pushed the maudlin thought away, putting it down to too many working hours at the hospital and her office and her dad showing up with Nina ten minutes before the much anticipated end of her eleven-hour day. It was typical of him and yet it never failed to irritate her. Walter Kerrigan was a successful orthopedic surgeon who should have understood better than anyone the demands on his daughter's time. But since the day Nina, his fifth child, was born, he'd insisted on making the drive from Santa Fe anytime he decided Nina needed to see a pediatrician, disregarding Lia's repeated requests for at least an advance phone call.
"Madelyn wants to know if you're planning to come to the housewarming," her father asked when Nina, locating the stack of books Lia kept in her examining room, was happily engrossed in studying her favorite. "She says she's left you several messages, but you haven't gotten back to her."
Lia stopped herself from sighing. Walter's fourth wife was twenty-nine to his sixty-two. In fact, Madelyn was six years younger than Lia herself, but the only thing they had in common was that they were both female. Lia couldn't think of a worse way to spend a Saturday night than a party at her dad's new house. It was impossible not to love Nina, but she couldn't say the same for Nina's mother. "I've been busy," she gave the usual excuse. "And I may be on call this weekend."
"You always say that," Walter said, his dismissive tone clearly saying he didn't believe her. "It wouldn't hurt if you would come to visit us once in a while, if nothing else to see Nina. You complain enough about not being able to spend time with her. Bring that fireman of yoursI can't remember his namethe one you've been seeing."
"Tonio Peña, and that's been over for more than a year now."
"Has it?" Walter assessed his daughter with the slight concentrated frown that he gave a particularly difficult-to-treat injury. "I suppose he went the way of the others. Relationships seem to be a self-fulfilling prophecy with you. You expect them to turn out badly and so they do."
"You taught me well," Lia retorted, defensiveness sharpening her voice more than she'd intended. Maybe there was some truth in what he said, but her father, who acquired and discarded wives and girlfriends as easily as if he were trading in a car for a better model, could hardly claim to be an expert on successful relationships.
"The difference between us is it doesn't hurt me when it falls apart," Walter said. "Unlike you, I gave up my illusions that anything lasts forever a long time ago. There are advantages to being married, but they aren't so great that I feel the need to sentence myself to a lifetime of misery if it doesn't work."
That apparently was one philosophy he and her mother shared, Lia reflected, after her father and Nina had left. Shaking off her unprofitable introspectionit certainly hadn't gotten her anywhere in the pastshe finished the notations on Nina's chart and was seriously contemplating a long bath and a cold drink when her pager beeped. Bath and drink became unlikely when she recognized the number as the emergency room extension.
"Doctor Nunez wanted to know if you could help with a sick case, a little boy," the nurse said when Lia called in. "We're busy this evening, and Doctor Nunez thought you could handle it more quickly."
Translation: Hector doesn't like kids. The thought of inflicting a harried Hector Nunez on a sick child was more than enough to hurry her to the emergency room.
Her first thought entering the curtained cubicle was the man sitting on the edge of the examining table, a protective arm around the boy curled up against his chest, was going to be difficult. His expression clearly said he was prepared to treat anyone who approached his son as an adversary until proven otherwise. Yet glancing over the boy's chart, she thought he'd probably earned the right.
The paperwork raised questions, though, about what Duran Forrester, who listed his profession as filmmaker and gave an address in Los Angeles, was doing a thousand miles from home, in Luna Hermosa of all places, with a sick child.
"Mr. Forrester?" She gave him a quick appraisal, getting a fast impression of unruly dark brown hair that tended to slant over one eye and a runner's body, long, hard and lean under the black shirt and jeans. The silver stud earring he wore and his sensual good looks probably had people mistaking him for someone who spent his time in front of the camera rather than behind it. His eyes, trained on her now, gave her the feeling he was sizing her up and that she so far hadn't measured up to his standards. She wasn't exactly at her best after nearly twelve long hours, her khaki slacks and white shirt showing the day's wear, makeup faded and her dark auburn hair doing its best to escape her ponytail. But there was nothing she could do to fix that now, and so she pulled her professionalism around her, put on a polite smile and settled for ignoring it.
"I'm Lia Kerrigan, I'm the staff pediatrician." As she came around to the bedside opposite Duran Forrester, the boy half glanced at her, his eyes dull with fever. "You must be Noah. Or maybe this is Noah?" She tweaked the ear of the stuffed panda the boy clutched tightly.
A spark briefly flared in the boy's eyes. "That's Percy."
"Percy's a nice name for a puppy," Lia said conversationally as she started her exam, working around the bear and Duran Forrester, aware he was closely watching her every move.
"He's not a puppy," Noah protested. "He's a panda."
"Really?" Lia took a quick temperature reading while she gave the bear due consideration. "Are you sure?"
Noah held up his friend for inspection. "See?"
"Mmm well, you could be right. But since I've never actually seen a real panda before, I'm not sure."
"I saw two, once. In a zoo. They were awesome." Noah leaned back against his dad's shoulder. "My ears hurt."
"I know, honey," Lia said softly, gently stroking a few wayward locks of hair from his forehead. Noah so much resembled his dad, a younger version of the man with the same messy dark hair and deep river-green eyes, that she could easily imagine Duran Forrester as a child. Illness, though, had paled Noah and painted violet shadows under his eyes. "I'm going to see what I can do to fix that."
Giving Noah what she hoped was a reassuring smile, she moved around the bed nearer to Duran. "Normally, I'd send him home with an antibiotic. But you two are a long way from home and Noah's circumstances require special care" She let the sentence trail off, not sure how much she should say with Noah listening. "I think it would be better if he stayed the night. I'm sure you understand there could be complications and I could do a better job of monitoring him from here."
He didn't answer right away, but gave her that assessing look, clearly weighing her advice against his own judgment. Lia thought it was even odds whether he'd agree to her suggestion. Finally, he gave a curt nod. "All right. If you think it's best."
"I don't wanna stay here," Noah said. "I wanna go home."
"Not tonight, buddy," Duran told him, putting his arm around Noah again and drawing him closer. "It's just one night. And I'll stay with you, I promise."
"Sure he will, and Percy, too," Lia added. "You're lucky he's not a puppy, though. We don't let puppies in here. But pandas are different. They get to be special guests."
Diverting Noah's attention from having to spend night in a hospital room, Lia made a big show of giving Percy his own ID bracelet, checking his heartbeat and finding him a surgical cap to keep his ears warm, earning her Noah's approval and most surprising, a smile from Duran Forrester. It wasn't much, a quick sideways slant of his mouth, but it warmed some of the cold places inside and left in their place a warm, satisfied glow.
She personally saw to settling Noah in a room, and after getting him to eat a little chicken noodle soup and drink some apple juice, she tucked him into bed. Drowsy from the mild painkillers she'd given him, his eyes drooped closed almost immediately, and Lia, straightening, looked directly into Duran's frown.
"I need to make a call," he said, fixing his attention on Noah. "I've missed an appointment I had here and I should let him know where I am." He patted his shirt pocket, came up empty, and his scowl deepened. "Damn, I left the number in the car."
Lia considered telling him she'd stay with Noah while he retrieved the number and made his call, but figured, as protective he was of his son, he wouldn't agree. "Where were you headed? This is a small enough town, I might be able to help you."
"Rancho Piñtada. I was supposed to meet with a Rafe Garrett at five."
Whatever she expected, it wasn't that. "Are you a rancher as well as a filmmaker?" she asked lightly, curious, but not wanting to probe.
"No. My business is personal." He didn't volunteer anything else and she heeded the clear message to back off.