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It was mid-December and the Coffee Break was busy, but not as busy as the street outside. Sarah Alpert drew her gaze away from the view through the wide glass window, where shoppers hurried about their seasonal tasks, to the little boy seated across the narrow table from her.
Ali. Her heart warmed simply from looking at him. She loved children, which was not surprising given she was a kindergarten teacher. But this one was special. She handed a paper napkin across the red plastic tabletop to her five-year-old foster son and student. "Hey, you have some hot chocolate on your chin."
He grinned, the charmer he was, showing his heart-tugging grin and the dimple in his left cheek. He scrubbed at the wrong spot on his chin.
Adoration filled her like Texas sunshine. She leaned forward, reaching over to rub at the right spot. Two swipes and the kid was clean. This sweetheart had proven to be the balm her wounded heart had needed. "Are you ready?"
Ali hopped down from his chair. "Yep. Can I call Dr. Mike yet?"
Mike. She tried not to flinch at that name.
"He hasn't called," Ali added. "He's comin' home, you know."
"Yes, I heard something like that."
"'Cuz I tol' you."
"About a thousand times." She managed to keep a smile on her face as she stood. "All right, sunshine, we have errands to do."
"Me and Dr. Mike are gonna get pizza and do lotsa stuff. We're buddies."
Sarah focused on her little boy and pretended he hadn't brought up Mike. Distraction, that was the key. "Which do you want to do first? Pick out our Christmas lights or mail our Christmas cards?"
Her heart melted a little more. Already he was her family. She couldn't wait for the adoption to gothrough. Then he would be hers. Really and truly hers. "Coat on and zipped up. There's a cold wind out there."
"Yes, ma'am." Ali hopped down and his bright red sneakershis favorite colorhit the floor with a squeak and a thump. His salute was the one Dr. Mike Montgomery had taught him. The two had met when Ali came in as a roadside-bomb casualty to Mike's MASH unit. The child had been injured, but his mother had been killed. Ali had formed a bond with Mike, and Mike had helped arrange to send Ali to the States for lifesaving surgery.
Her heart twisted with an old pain. She and Mike had ended their engagement a year ago, but losing him would always hurt. She tucked that hurt away the best she could and put what she hoped was a big smile on her face.
"I get that." The little gentleman he was, Ali grabbed their garbage.
"Thank you." Sarah unhooked her jacket from the back of her chair and slipped into it, unable to take her eyes off the little boy as he trotted over to the receptacle near the door. He had to go up on tiptoe to dump it.
She hefted the shopping bags from beneath their table, slid her purse strap higher on her shoulder and held out her hand to her foster son. She was thankful every day that he was thriving, after all his losses. His grandfather Marlon, who had lived next door, had passed away last month. And while Ali had little time to get to know his grandfather, it was another loss all the same.
There were still shadows of his grief in his eyes that were always there, even when he smiled. Poor baby. She ran her fingertips through his fine, dark brown hair, hoping to comfort what could not be fixed.
"I get the door for you, Sarah." Ali trotted ahead of her, his sneakers thumping on the tile. He gave the door a mighty push.
"Thanks, kiddo. You are one strong boy." She complimented him as she sailed into the crisp overcast day and the busy sidewalk.
"I real strong now." Ali beamed with pride. His little fingers wrapped around her hand, holding on so tight she could feel his need.
She held on tightly, too.
"Sarah, look!" Ali fastened his deep soulful eyes on a soldier in desert fatigues, who was walking down the sidewalk. The little boy turned on his heels to watch the infantryman stride away. "I'm gonna be a soldier and a doctor, just like Dr. Mike."
Her knees shook with every step she took. How long did it take a broken heart to mend? How long for regret to fade away? It took all her strength to swallow her sadness and hide every bit of her pain. "You couldn't pick a better man to be like."
"I know." Ali's confidence was simple and unshakable.
Hers was not so sturdy. Life had not been the same without Mike. She missed him more than she cared to admit. Still, she had done her best to make something of her life without him.
She knew Ali's next question would be about Dr. Mike, too. The boy was nothing if not persistent. Maybe it was best to try to distract him. "What color house lights should we buy?"
"Red." He thought a minute, tilting his head to one side. "No, wait. I want blue."
Sarah smiled. Ali lifted the sadness from her heart. Since this was his first American Christmasand their first one togethershe wanted to do it right. That's what she had to concentrate on: what mattered to her now.
"Dr. Mike!" Ali ripped his hand from hers and barreled down the sidewalk, darting between families and a group of teenagers. He moved fast for a boy who'd just recovered from open-heart surgery! Sarah leaped after him, bags slapping against her knees as she caught up with him two steps before the busy intersection. She grabbed his hand, but Ali, the good, smart little boy he was, was already stopping on his own.
Before she could drag enough air past the panic clutching her throat and the stitch in her side to set him straight about running off like that, Ali jumped up and down, waving his free hand.
"Dr. Mike! There's Dr. Mike!"
Sarah squinted across the street through the traffic searching the pedestrians for him. For Mike. It took only one second for her gaze to find him. Perhaps she would always recognize his straight, strong back and wide, dependable shoulders, his short, dark blond hair and that confident, lanky stride.
Mike. Her pulse ground to a halt. All the ways she'd fallen out of love with him paled next to all the reasons she had fallen in love with him. He hadn't heard Ali's call above the rush of traffic as he stopped to look at a shop's window display. She could see his profile now; his handsome face was still the same with that square, honorable jaw and well-cut features.
What a relief it was to see him again. Her toes tingled with happiness, warring impossibly with her sadness. He was back safe, unharmed and whole.
Thank You, Lord. She sent the little prayer up with a piece of her heart. Just because Mike wasn't hers anymore didn't mean she couldn't pray for him. His happiness was more important than her owneven now. She had tried to talk herself out of her feelings, but they hadn't budged over the last year that he'd been away. Perhaps because of the way they had broken up right before he had gone off to war.
And now that she knew he was back home and unharmed, maybe she could let go of this sorrow. She planted her feet, hitched her purse back up on her shoulder and tightened her hold on Ali's hand. The light chose that moment to change to yellow and on to red. The traffic slowed and quieted, and Ali's "Dr. Mike!" must have reached the other side of the street because Mike looked up at the sound of his name. His eyes fastened to hers, just the way they used to do.
It was just nostalgia; that's what she told herself as she jerked her gaze from his. That's the only reason she could give to explain the startle in her heart that felt, impossibly, like joy at seeing him again.
I do not love him, she told herself. She wouldn't let herself again. She wished Mike well and that was all, nothing more. She would walk Ali right over to Mike and prove it to him.
And to herself.
Sarah. Mike stared in disbelief and then in dread as she started heading his way, with Ali's hand in hers. As she crossed the busy crosswalk, he had time to take her in. She looked different somehow. Her auburn hair was the same deep color and shone like silk in the afternoon sun. She was still as lovely as he'd remembered with her big blue eyes and soft, ready smile. She was wearing the wool coat she'd bought new around this time last year, right before they'd broken up. He couldn't quite put his finger on what exactly was different, but everything about her appeared a little brighter.
At the back of his mind came a small voice, one he didn't want to listen to. It was saying She looks so good to you because you missed her so much.
No, that was one voice he could not afford to listen to or encourage. He held his heart firm, dissolving away any lingering emotion. It was over and done with between him and Sarah. What he needed to focus on instead of their past was his little buddythe boy he'd come to think of as a son.
It was a gift that Ali had come into his life. They'd had an instant connection in triage, when the nurse had called him over with worry in her eyes. Worry for a child caught in the middle of warfare. Ali had become his family over the last five months.
He thought of the paperwork he had on his truck seat, ready for his lawyer. Ali's adoption papers. He wanted the little boy with everything he had left. This last tour had taken out a big chunk of him, but that didn't matter now.
"Hello, Mike." Sarah's quiet, sweet voice could reach right in and grab hold of his heart if he let it.
"Hello, Sarah." He couldn't look at her. Time had not healed his wounds. He squared his shoulders, at a loss. Maybe he ought to just concentrate on Ali. The little dark-haired, dark-eyed boy was running toward him. True joy lit that little face.
"Dr. Mike! You came! You came!"
"Sure I did, buddy. Just like I promised. I didn't forget you." All the pain and exhaustion from this last year seemed to fade as the little boy flung out his arms and launched into the air. The world felt right as he caught the little fella in midair and swung him high before snuggling him to his chest.
Thin arms wrapped around Mike's neck so tight, it hurt. He set the boy on the ground. "Let me get a look at you. You're gettin' big."
"'Cuz I eat my veggies. But not broccoli." He shook his head. The two of them shared a great mutual dislike of that green vegetable.
"I told Sarah you come." Ali danced in place he was so happy. "You didn't call. I waited and waited. There was no ringing."
"Sorry about that." Mike swallowed, battling down the last of his emotions.
"I told him you were probably busy." Sarah spoke up in that quiet way of hers.
Her serene tone could lure him closer if he let it.
"I heard Whitney is back home and in the hospital." Sarah tried again to make conversation.
"You know Whitney Harpswell?" He spoke to her, but he kept staring at the crack in the sidewalk.
"Two girls in my class chose her and her husband for the Adopt a Soldier program, and we were writing to them before they disappeared." Sarah was genuinely concerned. "I heard that you found her."
"She was found by a villager woman. They brought her to my MASH unit. I just recognized her." He resisted the need to look at Sarah and studied the boy instead. Ali's color was good. So was his energy level. His respiration clear and even. He'd heard reports through Dr. Nora Blake, the local surgeon handling Ali's case, and had talked to the boy as often as he could, but seeing was believing. There was nothing like being able to watch Ali hop eagerly in place to make the knot of worry relax in the center of his chest.
He wasn't a religious man, but he gave thanks right then and there standing in the middle of the street. He thanked God the boy had pulled through his risky surgery two months ago. He thought of all the others he'd treatedboth soldier and civilian alikewho had not been so fortunate. Right from the start there had been something incredibly special about this plucky boy.
Ali stared up at Mike with his wide soulful eyes. "How come you didn't call? Why?"
Talk about feeling like a heel. Mike jammed his fists into his coat pockets and did his best to ignore Sarah standing protectively behind the boy. "I couldn't. I was on a plane flying home. I wanted to talk to you. You understand, right?"
"Okay. You gonna call me today?" Hope brightened the boy. "When?"
"I'm seeing you right now." Mike laughed as he scrubbed his hand over the kid's short brown hair. "Isn't that enough?"
"You gonna see me?" Hope lit the boy up like Christmas. "When?"
The kid wasn't understanding him. Mike shook his head, finding gentleness for the boy, though gentleness wasn't something he was good at. He felt awkward as he knelt down. He could feel the weight of Sarah's gaze and he ignored it. He focused on what matteredthis kid was going to be his son. "Sorry, buddy, this is it."
"But you said today." Ali cocked his head. His forehead scrunched up in thought. "You can come see me later. For supper? Sarah's gonna make my second favorite."
Macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and green beans. Mike didn't even have to ask. It had been his plan to stop by the commissary on the way to his duplex. Those foods were at the top of his shopping list. He didn't know how long it would take to get custody of the boy, but Mike liked being prepared. Now, if only he could keep ignoring the sensation of Sarah's gaze.
No such luck. He drew in a breath, gathered his courage and turned to face her. It took all his strength to keep the past from flashing through his mind, but it did anyway. Remembering that rainy October night as he'd stood huddled beneath her porch roof, wet with rain and ripped apart by her quiet words telling him it was over. Pain hit him, as fresh as a new wound.
Let it go, man. He squared his shoulders, met her gaze and held his heart cement-still. Let her see the man he was today. Resolute, unaffected and completely over her.