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By SONDRA QUINN
Swimming Kangaroo BooksCopyright © 2006 SONDRA QUINN
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAdria frowned at the order form in front of her. She'd added the figures four times and come up with a different amount each time. Stretching her arms high into the air with a dancer's grace, she shook her sable hair and then returned to the form. As she punched the numbers into her calculator with fierce jabs of her pencil, the ring of the phone shattered what was left of her concentration. "Hello!" she said impatiently.
"Adria Sinclair please," said an unfamiliar voice.
"This is she." Adria tapped her pencil on the edge of the book order, instantly categorizing this as a sales call.
"Mrs. Sinclair, this is Don Mannick. I'm one of the football coaches at Howard Junior High."
"Yes?" Adria forgot all about the book order and tried to quell the wave of anxiety that swept over her. From the tone of Coach Mannick's voice, this wasn't a social call.
"Alex has had an accident here at practice. His shoulder was injured and we thought it best to take him to the hospital. Our head coach, Bryce Hathaway, went in the ambulance with him."
"Ambulance?" Adria said with alarm.
"Just a matter of policy," Coach Mannick said soothingly.
"Of course. I'll go to the hospital immediately. Thank you for calling." Adria pressed the disconnect button.
"Michael!" she called as she scrambled in her purse for her car keys. "I've got to go to the hospital. Alexhas had some kind of accident at practice. I'm leaving you in charge. I'll call as soon as I've talked to the doctor."
"Okay Aunt Adria."
"And no Gameboy[R] till homework's done!"
Michael grinned. "Understood." He gave her a half salute as she found her keys and ran out the door. It wasn't till she got to the hospital that Adria realized she had rushed away from the house still wearing her comfortable, but worn-looking slippers. At least they weren't bunny slippers, she thought with a wry grin, remembering how proud the twins had been when they'd presented those to her as a birthday present.
Adria wrinkled her nose as the sharp odor of alcohol rushed to meet her when she stepped inside the double doors of the emergency room. All hospitals smelled alike, she thought, looking around to get her bearings. The woman at the Admissions Desk looked tired, as though she had seen far too many emergencies; yet she managed a welcoming smile as Adria asked anxiously about Alex. "The doctor was just going in to look at him. He's in Room Four, right over there. Why don't you go see for yourself how he is? You can finish filling out these forms in there. Coach Hathaway gave us what information he could but ..."
"Of course," Adria said, cutting the woman off in her haste to get to her nephew. She stepped quickly through the door of Room Four, clutching the forms tightly in her whitened knuckles. Alex lay on the table with his eyes half closed. Adria caught her breath. "Alex?"
"Hi," the boy said weakly. Adria frowned at the strain of pain in his usually cheerful voice.
"The doctor will be right in. You're going to be all right." Adria moved to the table and stroked his hair back from his pale face.
"Are you Alex's aunt?"
The velvet-edged voice hit her from behind, and for the first time, Adria realized there was someone else in the room. She turned and saw a man standing in the corner. No, not just a man, but an extremely handsome man with wavy straw-colored hair, penetrating blue eyes, and dimples she could get lost in. Adria loved dimples; she'd seen Pirates of the Caribbean four times just to look at Orlando Bloom's dimples. The man looked vaguely familiar, and she wondered where she had seen him before. "Yes, I'm Adria Sinclair, Alex's aunt." She held out her hand, noting the faint look of surprise on the man's face.
"I'm Bryce Hathaway." His large hand took her small one and held it gently, perhaps just a fraction longer than necessary. His rich, masculine scent warred with the alcohol smell of the hospital and won. "When Alex said he lived with his aunt, I expected someone quite a bit older." And not as pretty, his eyes added.
Adria forced herself to look away from his smile and back to Alex. "What happened?" she asked. "Coach Mannick told me he was hurt, but didn't say how."
"We were just having our regular practice, "A" team against the "B" team, when he got sacked. He was hit pretty hard. His shoulder was wrenched and, well-" Bryce shrugged and nodded his head in the boy's direction. "You can see what it looks like."
Yes, Adria certainly could see and she didn't like the look of it. Underneath the ice pack, the joint was swollen and misshapen. She hid her concern, though, and smiled reassuringly at her nephew. "I'll just fill out these forms," she said, "so the doctor can have a look at you." She pushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes and quickly filled in the requested information.
Bryce watched Adria with a half smile on his face. She was the most attractive woman he had ever seen. Her inky black hair fell straight to her waist, framing her face and emphasizing her fair skin. Her soft brown eyes were large and had an intensity about them when they focused on him that he enjoyed even while finding it disconcerting. She was not much taller than Alex, but her legs, encased in faded jeans, were long and slender, and her breasts were pleasantly full. For just a moment, as he watched her tenderly stroking the hair out of Alex's eyes, he almost wished he were lying on the table in the boy's place.
"Hello, I'm Dr. Cavens." A plump, cheerful-looking man breezed into the room and held his hand out first to Bryce, then to Adria. Adria stood back anxiously and watched as the doctor examined her nephew's shoulder. Bryce moved up to stand beside her and Adria took comfort from his solid strength. He rested his hand lightly on her shoulder, and just for a second she leaned into the warmth of his touch before self-consciously pulling herself away.
Finally the doctor turned. "It looks as if his shoulder is dislocated. I'd like to get a few x-rays so we know for sure what we're dealing with, and then I'll talk to you some more."
Adria nodded. "Of course. Do what you need to do."
An orderly came to wheel Alex to x-ray. "It'll probably be a while," he told Adria. "If you want to go to the snack bar and wait, we'll call for you as soon as he's done."
Adria hesitated, but Bryce slipped a hand under her elbow. "Come on. You can't do any good here. I'll buy you a cup of coffee."
His touch sent a tingle through Adria. She pulled her elbow away quickly, but gave him a smile. "All right," she agreed. "A cup of coffee would be good right now."
Bryce saw her seated comfortably at a chair in the snack bar before he fetched a steaming cup of coffee and fresh doughnuts. "Hope you like chocolate-iced."
"My favorite. If it's not chocolate, it's not worth eating!" Adria said with a wink. She broke off a piece of doughnut and stuffed it in her mouth. "You don't need to stay, you know," she added with gentle softness. "I can handle things from here."
"I'm sure you can, but it's my responsibility as coach to stay. I sure hate it that Alex got hit like that. He's a good kid."
A smile lit Adria's face. "Yes, he is."
"How long has he lived with you?"
Adria stirred her coffee. "About seven months. My brother and his wife were killed in a car crash."
"Must have been hard on Alex."
Adria nodded, not trusting herself to speak further. But Bryce caught a hint of it in her eyes. "And you too?" he asked gently.
"My brother and I barely had a chance to get to know each other," she said, her voice slightly husky.
"He was my half brother. Our father divorced his mother to marry my mother. For a long time I didn't even know I had a brother." Not until her father had become ill and written to his son, begging for forgiveness for abandoning him as a boy. Ari had been unable to overcome his feelings of resentment toward his father, yet he had liked his half-sister and, despite the age difference between them, they had become good friends. Adria, who had been her father's pillar of strength ever since her mother had died when she was eight, had been glad to have someone else to rely on for the first time in her life.
"So now you're raising his son."
"His sons." Adria paused. "Five of them." She waited for the look of shock and horror to cross his face, as it inevitably would. As it had every man's face, including Paul's.
"Five! Wow!" Bryce didn't look horrified. No, there was a definite grin on his face. "That must have been quite a shock to become a mother to five kids overnight!"
Shock was not quite the word for it, Adria thought, remembering her dismay when the lawyer had told her that Ari's will named her as the boys' legal guardian. She had wished that someone else could take over the burden, but when she had realized that the only alternative was to separate the boys and put them in foster care, she had opened her home, and her heart to them. She'd had no choice.
She mentioned none of this to Bryce, however, but smiled cheerfully. "They're good kids," she said. The smile was quickly erased by a worried frown. "I hope Alex is all right."
"Will Adria Sinclair please return to the Emergency Room?" The summons came clearly over the loudspeaker, as if on cue, and Adria nearly knocked her coffee over in her haste to get back to the Emergency Room. Bryce followed closely behind her. The doctor met them, and led them inside one of the rooms to show them Alex's x-rays. "As I suspected, it was dislocated. We've maneuvered it back into position, but I'd like to keep him overnight just for observation."
"Yes, of course," Adria said immediately. "Whatever you feel is best. Can I see him?"
"Certainly. He's pretty woozy, but go on in."
Adria, with Bryce still behind her, stepped quietly into the room. Alex was half asleep, but he nodded when Adria told him that she would pick him up at the hospital in the morning. An orderly came to move the boy to a room on the Orthopedic Ward. A nurse was waiting for them at the door of the room and helped Alex get settled. Adria stood beside the bed and held his hand. "I hate to leave him alone," she whispered. "But I've got the other boys at home."
Alex opened his eyes. "I'll be okay," he mumbled. "Go home."
Adria hesitated. The nurse nodded. "He'll be fine, Mrs. Sinclair. He'll probably sleep straight through till morning. You ought to go on home."
"I don't guess there's anything more I can do," Adria bent down and kissed Alex's forehead. "Good night, Alex."
Adria left the room, Bryce at her side. A thought struck her and she turned to him. "You came here in the ambulance, didn't you? Can I give you a lift back to your car?"
An easy smile played at the corners of Bryce's mouth. He'd been hoping she'd ask. "Yes, thanks. I was afraid I'd have to call a taxi or something."
Adria led the way to the van she'd purchased after the boys had come to live with her. She unlocked the door for him and then swung into the driver's seat. "Is your car parked at the school?" she asked.
Bryce nodded and leaned back in his seat as she pulled out of the parking lot. "Your brother must have thought a lot of you if he made you the guardian of his children," he commented.
Adria shrugged. "There wasn't really anyone else. My parents are dead, and so is Ari's mother. Jean's parents are much too old to handle five kids. I was the only one left." Besides, both Ari and Jean knew they could count on her. They'd admired the way she'd looked after her father after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and later, with cancer. She'd had years to develop being sensible and capable. Years devoted to caring for her sick father and keeping the family bookstore alive with no time or energy for anything else.
When her father had died, almost fourteen months before, Adria had mourned him deeply, but had been relieved that he'd been released from a life of constant pain. She'd begun to fashion a new life for herself and started to enjoy having the freedom to do whatever she pleased for the first time in her life. Then, without warning, Ari and Jean were killed in a car crash, and she was suddenly and unexpectedly saddled with five active kids. Adria had regretfully turned from the new life she had begun to fashion for herself to once again become the sensible and capable caregiver.
She had traded in her nice, one bedroom apartment for an older four- bedroom house still in need of repair. The money for high fashion, fancy restaurants, and for the long dreamed of Hawaiian vacation instead went to blue jeans, t-shirts, and sensible meals. She loved the boys but she often thought wistfully of those glorious months with no concerns other than for herself, especially after difficult days with the boys, which sometimes seemed to be a daily occurrence.
Still, she mused, despite the sacrifices she had made, she would not give the five boys up for anything. Not for her cozy little apartment, her Hawaiian vacation, or even Paul.
Bryce leaned back contentedly, watching her out of the corner of his eye as she pulled into the parking lot of the school. He wanted to see her again, but for the first time in his life he didn't know how to tell her so. He'd never been tongue-tied around women before. He'd always been ready with a glib line or joke. Of course, it had been easier when he had been a famous football player with hordes of women chasing after him. But even now he was not usually as self-conscious around women as he felt around Adria. Something about her stunning good looks coupled with her obvious competence seemed to reduce him to a bumbling teen-ager. "I'll call you tomorrow, shall I?" he said finally. "To see how Alex is, of course."
She hesitated, and then inclined her head. "Yes, I'm sure Alex would like that." Truth to tell, she wouldn't mind it either. She found Bryce Hathaway incredibly attractive. She would like to see him again, even though she knew nothing would ever come of it.
"My car's over there," Bryce pointed, and Adria pulled up next to a fiery red Porsche.
"How on earth did you afford a car like that on a teacher's salary!" she gasped involuntarily.
"I have some investments," Bryce said vaguely.
"I used to have a Porsche." Adria's voice was a tad wistful.
Adria waved a hand around at the van. "Kind of hard to stuff five kids in a sports car," she said wryly.
"Yes, I guess it is." Bryce paused, reluctant to leave. "Well," he said finally. "I'll talk to you tomorrow. I hope Alex feels better by then. Good night."
"Good night." Adria watched as he swung easily out of the van and walked to his car, the parking lot light reflecting off his blonde hair. She found herself looking forward to his call.
Chapter Two"Why do you look so mad, Aunt Adria?" four-year-old Devin asked from the bathtub, just before he sent another wave of sudsy water splashing down the front of her blouse.
Adria quickly readjusted her expression. "I'm sorry, sweetie. I was just thinking about something. Now hold still so I can rinse the shampoo out of your hair." She had been in a foul mood ever since she had picked Alex up from the hospital. Every time the phone had rung, she had leaped to answer it, and although she wouldn't admit it to herself, she had been disappointed that the caller had never turned out to be Bryce. "That just shows what his word is like," she told herself as she hosed off Devin's head and then turned her attention to his twin. "Kevin, quit squirming!" she said sharply.
At last both boys were out of the tub and in their pajamas. "Go pick out a story and I'll read to you in the living room," she directed, looking with dismay at the mess they had left behind. There wasn't a dry surface in the room, including herself. She bent to pick up a sodden towel when the doorbell rang. "Michael, can you get that?" she hollered.
She hung the towel on the rack and started to mop the floor. The doorbell rang again, barely noticeable over the barking of the dog. "Michael!" she yelled again. "Oh, never mind!" she ran to the door and hauled the boys' Old English Sheepdog, Fred, out of the way before she flung the door open.
"Hi!" Bryce Hathaway stood outside, a bouquet of flowers in one hand. He held them out to her.
Adria stared stupidly at him. "Oh, it's you!"
He gave her a smile that sent her pulse racing. "Can I come in?" he asked.
Adria suddenly wished she'd been doing anything but giving the twins a bath. What a mess she must look! "You caught me at a bad time," she said. "I was just giving the twins a bath and they got me all wet ..." her voice faltered
"I think I caught you at a very good time," Bryce replied, his gaze moving slowly down the length of her body.
Excerpted from Love's Challenge by SONDRA QUINN Copyright © 2006 by SONDRA QUINN. Excerpted by permission.
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