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Cole had sworn he would never come back, but here he was, on the edge of his seat, watching the boy on the track who had never broken stride the whole five kilometers. He glanced at the second hand on his watch. The boy was doing a consistent six-minute mile.
The boy sprinted for the finish line, his ground-eating stride putting him ahead of the pack. Athletic grace like that could be honed by training but began in the womb.
Despite the New Orleans heat and humidity, Dr. Cole Lassiter kept his attention on the competitions as a way of keeping the painful memories at bay.
Today and tomorrow were track-and-field competitions at Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park. Thursday was the swim meet at the hosting hospital's full-size facilities and Friday was back at the track for the soccer matches. Then home to New York for the weekend if he could get loose ends tied upor at least keep things from unraveling.
The wise thing to do would be to stay in New Orleans over the weekend to wine and dine the doctors and their families, and make sure everyone was comfortable with the merger of the two medical clinics.
If he could only keep his own personal unease from showing. His hometown of New Orleans held nothing but nightmares for himand a lucrative possible partnership between Lassiter Hand and Wrist Institute and the equally renowned New Orleans Sports Clinic. But negotiations were fragile.
A cheer from the bleachers had him turning his attention back to the field and the final lap of the race.
A modest but enthusiastic crowd encouraged the athletes as they competed for a sense of accomplishment as much as for a victory. These regional "special games" were hosted by a leading New Orleans hospital and run by scores of volunteers. It was certainly a different experience from the professional events he usually attended.
These games, free to all who wanted to watch, were every bit as exciting as the big-ticket events Cole usually went to. Maybe even more so, considering what these athletes were up against. All had mental challenges, and many of them had physical challenges, as well. But they had the same heart and courage as any other athlete.
From the sidelines, a distracted girl wandered onto the track right into the boy's path.
Cole winced as the boy jerked and hurdled to keep from running into her and ended up on his knees.
Without a word, the boy climbed back to his feet and took off running, trying to catch the two runners who had passed him.
He closed the gap to inches. If he'd had three more strides, he would have caught the front runner. Instead, the boy took second place.
An official leaned down to check the boy's knee, then pointed toward the medical tent. Without needing a prod from the intercom system, Cole headed in that direction.
From the moment she'd entered the stadium that morning, Bella Allante's attention had been drawn to him as if he had some preternatural power over her.
Why now? Why, when her world spun on the tip of a needle, did Cole Lassiter have to show up now?
Distracted, she tried to focus on the one-sided conversation her teenage helper was carrying on.
"So my mom says to tell you thanks. Working with our family photo album has really helped my sister understand age appropriateness much better."
"You're welcome." Isabella had stumbled upon her son's fascination with family photographs a few years back. "I've used them to teach everything from facial recognition to table manners."
"My sister is obsessed with photos of our grandmother. Didn't you tell us that happened with Adrian, too?"
"Yes, it did." Obsession wasn't an unusual trait for someone on the autistic spectrum. Isabella just wished Adrian's obsession had been with anyone other than Cole Lassiter.
The day her son had asked about the tall, dark-haired boy in many of her high-school photos, displaying curiosity but also being able to recognize him in photos at different ages, Isabella had been overjoyed at Adrian's breakthrough in development but torn about using the image of the man she despised above all others to teach her son.
Although she'd been mightily tempted to tell him a half-truth that day, she had never lied to Adrian. So she had confessed that the boy in the photos was Adrian's father, now a grown man and a renowned surgeon.
Instantly, she'd had to page through copies of her father's medical journals to show Adrian photos of Cole as an adult.
Since then, Adrian had elevated Cole to the status of superhero, insisting on having a dark-haired plastic doctor doll along with his superhero action figures and adding Cole's photo to the collection of pictures of family and friends on his bedside table.
She had been so thrilled she had found a way to reach her emotionally locked-away son she had decided to encourage and embrace his fascination with Cole, in the certain belief that she would never have to deal with the man in person.
Was that Adrian in the lead? He never wanted her to watch him compete, so she had only seen him run from afar.
Once more she scanned the crowd, intently watching the athletes take their final lap.
What was Cole doing herebeyond watching the son he had never acknowledged? That small part of her that needed closure nagged at her now like it had so many dark nights in the past. Had she tried hard enough, done enough?
Isabella lifted her chin. An Allante didn't begand she would never stoop that low again. If only he had acknowledged her pregnancy in some way, she could have put her doubts behind her, along with those tarnished memories of first love.
"Ms. Allante, is something wrong?"
Isabella replaced her worried frown with a forced smile. "Nojust anticipating a problem that might never happen."
If only it was just a commonplace problem worrying Isabella now, instead of the man in the front row, sitting all alone with his elbows propped on his knees.
The girl, old beyond her years, nodded with understanding. "My mom does that all the time. My dad keeps telling her to just take it each moment as it comes, but it doesn't seem to help."
Isabella tried to follow the same creed, even while she tried to provide an environment as secure and routine as possible for her son. While she was doing well on the secure environment part, she was failing miserably to live in the moment.
Usually her problem was trying to anticipate the future. But today her worry was all about the past.
Only fifteen short years ago, she had wished with all her heart to set eyes on Cole Lassiter.
She had wished it right up to the moment she had repeated her marriage vows to another man. At that point she had begun wishing just as fervently never to see Cole again.
Cole stood and stretched, spreading to the skies those arms that had once held her so tight, and began to amble toward the medical tent.
The loudspeaker popped and squealed, then blasted out, "Will the mother of athlete number 183 please meet him in the first-aid area?"
A burst of panic flipped her stomach with her heart. "That's Adrian."
"Go." The girl threw away the pencil Isabella had snapped in two. "I can take care of this."
"Thanks." Like she had every day since the pregnancy test had shown positive, Isabella straightened her spine, put her anxiety behind her, and vowed to do whatever was best for her child.
Under the tent in the makeshift first-aid station, Cole knelt to examine the boy's skinned knee.
"You're Adrian, right?" He was careful to move slowly and talk plainly.
"That's right, Doctor," an assistant answered for the boy. "Adrian is fourteen years old."
Cole would have guessed he was a year or two older. The boy was tall and rangy. He rocked back and forth as he flexed his left forefinger over and over again.
Adrian wasn't Cole's standard client. As a hand surgeon who specialized in sports medicine, Cole usually treated highly paid professional athletes.
He'd been informed that Adrian was autistic, mostly nonverbal, and skittish around strangers. Adrian particularly disliked being touched.
Volunteering for these special athletic games challenged Cole's doctor-patient skills. He wasn't familiar with treating athletes with mental challenges, but he had stepped out of his comfort zone to fill in for one of the future partners who'd had a family emergency.
Familysomething else Cole wasn't too familiar with.
Cole could relate to the boy, though. He himself was more of a thinker than a talker. Thankfully, professional athletes rarely required much chit-chat.
Still, he felt the need to be encouraging. "That was quite a race you ran, Adrian." Cole kept his voice calm and low despite the noise of the cheering crowd around them.
Adrian smiled with his eyes, showing acknowledgment of the compliment.
"Tough luck about the fall."
Adrian showed no anger, or even frustration, over the accident. Good sportsmanship personified.
"Adrian's mother is here, Dr. Lassiter," the assistant warned.
Before Cole could stand and turn around, Adrian's mother asked over his shoulder, "Honey, are you all right?"
He knew that voice.
Even after fifteen years, it rasped down his spine. Who would have thought a voice from his past could slam into his gut like this?
Calling on all the stoicism he'd developed over his career, Cole stood and moved aside so she could take his place. Isabella Allante was more beautiful now than the last time he'd seen hersound asleep in his bed.
For the sake of the boy, Cole used every ounce of professionalism he had to reassure the anxious mother. "Adrian is fine. Just a scrape."
"Cole," Bella said in a monotone, as if she'd turned off a switch to her emotions. Her face registered nothing, a mask of calm.
She had always been good at keeping her emotions in check, a trait that would have made her a good doctor if she had gone to medical school as they had planned.
He did the math. Had marriage and pregnancy, not necessarily in that order, caused her to drop out? Had it been her choice or her husband's?
That husband should have been him.
Betrayal and anger made him turn away from her, even after all these years. No other woman had ever affected him this way. He'd hardened his heart to make sure of it.
Bella bent down to inspect Adrian's knee.
"Doesn't look too bad, huh?" she asked her son, the compassion switched on again.
Cole watched Adrian's face as his eyes shifted up and to the left, then back to his mother's mouth. Adrian's way of agreeing, Cole guessed, when Bella gave him a gentle smile.
Feature by feature, the boy didn't look much like his mother. His eyes were dark, almost black, while hers were a crystal shade of violet. His hair was dark, too. Thick and wavy compared to hers, straight and honey-blonde. At fourteen, he was at least three inches taller than his petite mother. Maybe it was his gestures or the way he held himself that looked so familiar.
Cole glanced at Bella's bare ring finger. Nobody had told him that her marriage had broken upif, indeed, that was what her ring-free state meant. But, then, he'd made it clear to everyone back in New Orleans that he didn't want to hear the name Isabella Allante ever again.
"Worth the ribbon?" She held up a medal dangling on a red ribbon.
Again, Adrian spoke with his eyes, delight showing through their dark depths.
"Want to wear it?" She lifted the ribbon to place it around Adrian's neck.
His left hand started to pat the air while his shoulders tensed and his eyes took on a wild and startled cast.
Bella rocked back on her heels, giving her son space. "Okay, honey. Why don't I hold it for you?"
Adrian calmed and smiled, a sweet, pure smile like his mother's could be. "Momma."
Bella sucked in her breath. "Yes, honey. Momma. Thank you for that."
The loudspeaker crackled and the commentator announced refreshments for all the athletes and their guests. Adrian's eyes lit up. He pushed himself off his chair, not even wincing as he put weight on his injured leg.
Without looking left or right, he started for the snack bar. Abruptly, he stopped, pinned Cole with those deep, dark eyes and gestured, more a command than an invitation. Adrian might not use a plethora of words but his body language spoke volumes.
Cole could feel the tension radiate from Bella.
He had no problem reading her body language either. While Adrian clearly wanted Cole to accompany him, Isabella wanted exactly the opposite.
"Adrian, honey, Dr. Lassiter is busy. I don't think he can take a break with us," she said, making herself clear.
The odds were stacked against her. First off, Cole was thirsty. Secondly, Adrian wanted his companyand Cole sensed a specialness in that. And, thirdly, Bella had just issued a challenge Cole wouldn't walk away from.
"Au contraire, Mrs. Beautemps. I'm ready for a nice cold drink."
Cole had once lived or died by Bella's slightest desire, but now he wanted nothing more than to prove that what she did or didn't want had no influence on his decisions.
"It's Allante," she corrected.
"Divorce?" Not that it should matter. He wondered purely out of curiosity. He'd always thought she and David Beautemps would stay together forever. But, then, he'd thought that about himself and Bella, too, until she'd dumped him.
"My decision," she clarified, as if that would mean anything to him.
He shrugged. "Not my concern."
"Then you shouldn't have asked."
Sorry. The flippant apology stuck in his throat.
"You're right," he forced out, swallowing down the bitter taste of concession.
He and Bella were ancient historybad ancient history at thatand long since archived under "foolish youth." Any feelings between them should have been put to bed a long time ago.
Put to bed. Not the best metaphor to choose, not when he still remembered how that honey-gold hair spread across his pillow and down her trim, bare back all those years ago.
He took in her simple T-shirt dress, flattering but not new, and her wedge-heeled sandals that showed wear around the soles. Her simple clothes were very different from the fashions she'd once worn.
Fifteen years ago, her clothes had come straight off a Paris or New York runway. From the looks of things, she would have benefitted from a better lawyer, settlement-wise.
She brushed her hand down her dress then lifted her chin. "What are you doing here?"
"Business." The multimillion-dollar merger was the only thing that could have brought him back to his old hometown. Bella's father had been one of the founding partners of the sports clinic a few decades previously but Cole's lawyers had assured him that Dr. Allante had been out of the partnership for over a dozen years.
"You're not doing business at a track-and-field meet, are you?" Her question dripped of disbelief with a tinge of suspicion.
Cole knew she had deliberately twisted his answer.