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Rossi stood in shock in front of the receptionist's sliding-glass window.
He'd known he'd probably have to deal with his past at some point. But reading the third name on the placard beside the window, he knew that karma was ready to bite him in the butt today.
He studied the letters of Dr. Tessa McGuire's name as if somehow they'd change before his eyes. But they didn't. She was one of the pediatricians in this practice and he'd have to deal with it. He had a two-out-of-three chance of Sean's chart not landing in her stack. Those weren't bad odds.
The seven-month-old baby nestled in Vince's arm gurgled and stared up at him with sparkling blue eyes. Vince's heart melted just as it had from the moment he'd first held the little boy. Was it possible he'd become Sean's legal guardian only two and a half months ago? Only a week ago he'd returned to his hometown of Sagebrush, outside of Lubbock, Texas, in an attempt to find Sean the medical attention he needed, as well as put them both on the pathway to a new life. Vince had been impressed by the Family Tree Health Center where this pediatric practice as well as obstetrical, counseling, oph-thalmological and a few other specialty practices were located.
The receptionist had finished her call and opened the glass window, staring at Vince expectantly.
"Sean Davidson's the patient, but I'mhis legal guardian Vince Rossi. Our appointment is for eleven-thirty," Vince said.
The woman checked off his name on the list in front of her. But before she could utter a word, the door to the waiting area opened.
Tessa McGuire appeared.
Her blond hair was still soft and wavy on her shoulders, her forget-me-not-blue eyes bright, her face mature in its beauty now. It had been twenty years since Vince had last seen her.
"Sean Davidson," she called cheerily. Then her gaze fell on Vince, recognized him, and her whole body went perfectly still.
Vince knew there was no use pretending. No point skirting the issue. Too much was at stake for Sean.
He strode forward and stopped in front of her. "I didn't know we'd be assigned to you. I'm Sean's legal guardian. If you'll have a problem treating him, I can find another doctor."
Tessa had always been the perfect lady, the well-bred daughter of one of the richest ranchers in Sagebrush. She was pale now, as if the shock of seeing Vince had affected her physically. He knew the feeling. Acid burned in his gut.
Sean wriggled in his arms and cooed, reminding Vince of why he was here. He repositioned the baby in his arm, careful of Sean's injured shoulder.
Tessa was watching, missing nothing. Finally she spoke. "Treating Sean won't be a problem. Please follow me."
So polite. So proper. So ready to do what she thought was right.
She'd thought going home to her father was right divorcing Vince was right forgetting they'd ever been married was right.
He followed her, almost curious what the privacy of an examination room might reveal. His body was already warning him that twenty years hadn't made a difference in his attraction to her. Tessa McGuire had always turned him on more quickly than any other woman. Apparently, that hadn't changed.
Awkward silence settled over the small room.
Tessa was studying him as he mentally ticked off the differences she'd see. At thirty-eight, there were strands of gray in his black hair. A scar from an arrest-gone-bad marred his left jaw. After he'd left Sagebrush, Air Force conditioning had put muscles on his lean body. After that, a workout regimen had kept him conditioned as a homicide detective.
He gave them both a few seconds to absorb the shock of seeing each other again. Finally he asked, "Do you want Sean on the table?"
In this examination room, colorful cartoon characters walked and danced and played on the walls in artistically drawn murals. Sean was looking all around, fascinated by them.
In answer to Vince's question, Tessa took a few steps forward and stopped. "I'll take him." She reached for his son.
Vince thought of Sean as his son even though he hadn't formally adopted him yet. He was waiting until they settled into a permanent place.
Transferring Sean to Tessa seemed to have an electric effect on them both. As her hands slid around the baby, they brushed Vince's chest. He caught a glimpse of startled awareness in Tessa's eyes as she tucked Sean into her arms, ducked her head and carried the little boy to the table.
Sean didn't seem to mind being held by her. He looked up at Tessa, waved his good arm and gurgled as if saying hello.
The expression on Tessa's face was so tender, so caring that Vince suddenly understood she'd become a pediatrician because while she'd never bear children of her own, in this specialty she could take care of everyone's kids.
As she settled Sean on the table, she asked, "How long have you been back in Sagebrush?"
"We drove in from Albuquerque last Monday."
Her gaze lifted to meet his. Then she quickly glanced away, concentrated on his baby again, took Sean's temperature with the ear thermometer, and offered him her finger maybe to test his grip. After tickling his tummy, she warmed her stethoscope with her palm before slipping it under Sean's T-shirt.
Vince took the opportunity to study Tessa again. Under her white coat decorated with cartoon characters, she wore a light blue, silky blouse and navy skirt. Her navy shoes had a small heel, just high enough to delineate the curves of her legs. She was as slender as she'd been as a teenager, as slender as she'd been before she'd gotten pregnant.
Vince veered away from thoughts and memories he'd tamped down for a very long time.
After she finished listening to Sean's heart and lungs, she examined the rest of him, making a game of using the tongue depressor, gently looking into his ears with the otoscope, running her hands over his injured right shoulder and testing his range of motion.
Still concentrating on the baby, she told Vince, "I received Sean's chart this morning. With his name different from yours " She stopped. "I have to admit I skimmed the front of the form and just paid attention to the medical facts. If I'd studied it more carefully, I would have noticed your name, too."
"Tessa, I meant it when I said I could go to another doctor."
Now she looked him straight in the eye. "I don't turn children away, Vince."
Not even when you don't want to be in the same room with their parents? He didn't ask the question aloud.
"We might only be in Sagebrush until Sean's shoulder problems are resolved," he explained, thinking that would relieve any anxiety she might have about Sean being her patient.
"A shoulder injury like Sean's is complex." Again her gaze met his unswervingly. "We usually see brachial plexus injuries when a baby gets stuck during the birthing process. In this case, with a seat belt causing the shoulder injury, we have a similar situation. How did you hear about Dr. Rafferty?"
"Sean's doctor in Albuquerque went to med school with him and said he's top-notch. When I researched him on the Internet, I saw he specialized in these surgeries. So coming to Lubbock seemed to be the best decision I could make. I want the best for Sean."
Although she hadn't asked, he decided to give her a bit more personal information. Maybe then she'd share some of her own. "For the past thirteen years I've been a homicide detective with the Albuquerque P.D."
Her gaze shot to his.
"After the Air Force, I wanted to do something that made a difference." He paused and added, "I never imagined that when my partner and his wife designated me in their will to be their baby's legal guardian, a car accident would take their lives and change mine."
Tessa continued examining Sean as she absorbed that. "You're a single dad?"
Tessa's tone was distinctly removed. Was she just making conversation? Trying to find out about Sean's situation? Or was her inquiry more personal than that?
"I'm not married. I never have been." When Tessa's eyes flashed a few silver sparks, he added, "I mean, except for us. Military service and then a police officer's schedule were tough on relationships."
After much soul-searching, Vince had realized he'd joined the Air Force to forget about Tessa to wipe her pregnancy and their marriage out of his mind. After the Air Force, he'd focused on becoming a detective and had never looked back. It was still too painful.
However, now with Tessa listening to his every word, he knew he'd be looking back all the while he was in Sagebrush. Would she? He was too aware of her. Was she just as aware of him?
"Did you get a job with the Lubbock P.D.?" she asked nonchalantly, as if it didn't matter.
That had been his intention, but then he'd found out about another position. "Do you remember Ryder Greystone?" Ryder had been one of their classmates in high school.
"He's with the Lubbock P.D. and I called him. He said sure, they could use me, but it turns out Sagebrush's chief of police, Clinton Farmer, had a heart attack and took a leave of absence. The mayor was having a problem finding a temporary replacement. After recuperation from bypass surgery, Farmer intends to come back at the end of August. So I applied, had several long interviews over the phone and was appointed to the position."
"You're going to be chief of police in Sagebrush?" Her eyes were wide with her surprise.
"Don't tell me you're having trouble seeing me as a law-and-order kind of guy," he joked. Maybe if they took a light touch, seeing each other again would be easier.
Tessa's cheeks flushed. "Oh, it's not that. I guess I thought you'd be living in Lubbock rather than Sagebrush. But if you're chief of police"
"I'm renting a one-story duplex on Whitehorse Road. What about you? Are you in Lubbock or living with your dad?" Walter McGuire would be in his late sixties now. Vince had seen a billboard advertising cutting horses from Arrowhead Ranch, so he guessed Tessa's dad was still hard at work building up a legacy for her.
At the mention of her father, Tessa went quiet, readjusted Sean's clothes so they were back in place, then scooped him up off the table. "I'm sharing a house in Sagebrush with two friends."
Her tone seemed to say, Not that it's any of your business. His mention of her father had put her on the defensive. He should have known better.
"Sean looks healthy, other than his shoulder, of course," she assured Vince. "His chart says he has an appointment with Dr. Rafferty on June twelfth. If Dr. Rafferty believes surgery is not in order, then what are you going to do?"
"I'll serve as chief of police until Farmer comes back, then maybe return to Albuquerque. Everything's up in the air right now, Tessa. I'm just taking one day at a time."
At the sound of her first name on his lips, her body seemed to stiffen, her shoulders becoming a little squarer. Then she was handing Sean over to Vince, this time very careful not to touch him. The awkwardness in accomplishing that emphasized the relationship they'd once had and the lack of even friendship between them now.
To cover her attempt to stay distant from him, if not his baby, Tessa asked, "So you're exercising Sean's arm every day?"
"Yes. And the woman I've hired to take care of him knows how to do it, too."
Even as a teenager, Tessa had foregone perfume for more natural scents like fruity shampoos and lotions. Vince inhaled a hint of vanilla and strawberries that took him straight back to necking sessions with her in his beat-up pickup.
She crossed to the door and opened it. "Good luck with Dr. Rafferty. Make sure he sends me a report." Her expression softened a little. "I know what a stress this must be to be worrying about Sean."
Their eyes locked and his heart pounded as he approached the doorway where she stood. Tessa pulled her gaze from his and touched Sean's hand. The baby took hold of her finger and looked up at her with seven-month-old fascination.
Vince knew exactly how his son felt.
Tessa removed her finger from Sean's fist. "Good luck, little one," she murmured.
After Vince gave her a nod and a muttered, "Thanks," he held Sean a little tighter and walked down the hall. How often had Tessa said those words before? How often had she looked at a baby and thought about her own? How often had she thought of him and blamed him for the hysterectomy she'd had no choice in having?
He might never know the answer. He and Tessa had been finished long ago. She obviously wanted to keep it that way.
Tessa hurried through the lobby of the Family Tree Health Center, hardly aware of the bright sunshine pouring in the plate-glass windows, barely noticing the photographs of children, moms and dads and families hung in casual to formal frames on the pale yellow walls. She was in a daze as she veered toward the coffee shop to the right of the main entrance, passed the bird-of-paradise potted plant and a ledge lined with pothos ivy.
Stopping to gain her focus again, she spotted the table where Emily Diaz and Francesca Talbot were sitting. She was late meeting them for lunch late pulling herself together late trying to push the image of Vince's face out of her head late trying not to remember the feel of baby Sean in her arms.
Vincent Rossi was back in Sagebrush and she was just going to have to deal with it.
Masterful at hiding what she didn't want others to see, she'd found she could let her guard down with Emily and Francesca. The three of them not only lived in a refurbished Victorian together but had become best friends.
Francesca greeted her first, sleek chestnut hair slipping over her shoulder, her green eyes sparkling as she beckoned Tessa toward their table. A neonatologist, Francesca had her office on the second floor of the center. She had office hours all day Monday, but spent most of her time at the hospital with her tiny patients.
Emily Diaz's big brown eyes were already studying Tessa as she approached the table. Emily had pulled her curly black hair back from her face and fastened it with a navy scrunchie.