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Rush To The Altar
By Rebecca Winters
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"He was good-looking before in a dark, dashing way. Now he's handsome as sin, but you wouldn't want to tangle with a man fighting his demons! I'll do his vital signs before I leave the floor."
Riley Garrow had been lying propped in his hospital bed at St. Steven's counting the minutes until Bart Adams arrived.
Some of Riley's friends and colleagues as well as those of his deceased father had been in and out of his room at one time or other in the last two months. However faithful Bart, his dad's closest buddy and confidant, had been the one to serve as Riley's lifeline to the outside world during his convalescence.
But it was Sister Francesca's voice, not Bart's, he heard out in the hall. He had the strongest suspicion the head nurse had intended for him to overhear her.
Theirs had been an ongoing battle of the wills. Her psychiatric training hadn't prepared her for Riley's refusal to let her explore his inner self - the core, as she put it, where he really lived. The persona he showed to the world was a mere facade hiding the wounded soul struggling for help from within.
He loved baiting her when she started to pull her psychobabble on him. Since there wasn't anything else to do during the long boring hours, it made his day pushing her buttons.
"Uh-uh-uh," he would say to her, waving his index finger before her shrewd brown eyes. "Control, Sister.
Control. Don't forget you're a role model for the sweet young postulants under your care."
At that point the gentle lines of her face would harden while she fought with herself to remain calm and collected.
"You're absolutely impossible," she would mutter before leaving the room in exasperation.
"I've been told that before by a number of women who've warmed my bed," he would call after her before bursting into laughter.
When she went off the day shift she briefed the night staff personally if they were new to the floor. After eight weeks and several plastic surgeries to graft skin from his leg to the area around his right eye and cheek, he knew everyone's schedule.
Unfortunately the only female nursing help who came and went from his room were lay nuns. That was something Sister Francesca had probably rigged up too. Surely there couldn't be that many women in Santa Monica, California, rushing to take vows of chastity and obedience.
He stared at the four sterile walls of his cage. "Sixty days without a real woman - No wonder I'm chomping at the bit to get out of here!"
"Your protest has been noted." Sister Francesca floated into his room pretending she was mother serenity herself this evening. "It appears heaven has heard your prayers at last, Mr. Garrow."
He smiled up at her. "I didn't think heaven listened to impossible men."
"They've made an exception in your case on behalf of all the sisters at St. Steven's who go to their knees the moment before they enter your room, and as soon as they leave."
"All?" He arched one black brow. "Isn't it a sin to exaggerate, Sister?"
She started taking his vital signs. "After examining you on his rounds before dinner, Dr. Diazzo informed me you're being discharged in the morning."
Riley's eyelids closed tightly for a moment.
"I thought that news would please you."
He opened them again. "Since I know you'd be forced to do penance if you lied, I have to assume you're telling me the truth. For once I'm happy you invaded my privacy."
Her brows lifted. "For once I'm overcome by the admission."
"Don't let pride carry you away, Sister, otherwise you'll have to say extra novenas after vespers. Tell me - are you going to be here in the morning to make certain I never darken your doorstep again?"
"I'm afraid not. After the burden it has been taking care of you, I'm going on retreat with some other sisters."
"Where does a nun go exactly for a well-earned vacation?"
"That's none of your business."
"Ah, come on. You can tell me. I can keep a secret as well as a saint."
"If it will prevent you from bothering the other sisters, let's just say I'm returning to the Good Shepherd Convent for a short period of rejuvenation and study. I need it after the draining last eight weeks being in charge of your case."
Riley chuckled. "Rumor has it you're a devotee of Thomas Aquinas. He would be proud of you for following his example. You work in a hospital, serve the sick. You preach purity and peace to the heathen," he teased her. "I'm partial to Francis of Assisi myself."
"That doesn't surprise me. No doubt like him you've done your share of street brawling because of a misspent youth."
"Would it surprise you to learn I even spent time in a Perugian prison?"
She took off the blood pressure cup. "Nothing about you surprises me. Unfortunately the similarities between you and Francis of Assisi stop there, Mr. Garrow. His incarceration led to a spiritual conversion."
"How do you know mine didn't? Uh-uh." He put up his finger. "Don't judge this book by its cover."
"It's the cover that has gotten you into so much trouble."
If he weren't mistaken, her eyes took on a haunted look as she studied him. For a brief moment they reminded him of Mitra's eyes when she used to worry about him.
"I'm leaving the hospital, not dying, Sister. You won't be getting a last rite's confession out of me, but I do have a gift for you."
"A nun doesn't ac -"
"Spare me the lecture," he broke in without remorse. "This is one I guarantee you won't refuse."
Acting as if she hadn't heard him, she placed a jug of fresh ice water from the cart on his bedside table, but he knew she was dying to hear more.
"You're not even going to ask what it is?"
"Need I remind you that for it to be a true gift, the right hand mustn't let the left hand know what it's doing?"
"I'm not the one striving for perfection. You, however, are very close to that sublime state and wouldn't dream of stooping to a petty weakness like curiosity. Therefore I'll tell you I've made a donation to your convent in honor of Sister Francesca."
When his declaration penetrated, she bowed her head.
"You may not have succeeded in getting me to bare my soul, but you've convinced me there are angels on earth. Thank you for preventing me from giving up when I was at my lowest ebb. For that you've earned a permanent place in this sinner's heart."
No doubt she was hiding her face because she didn't want him to see the moisture filling her eyes, another sign of weakness she was determined not to display.
As she turned to push the cart out of the room she said, "Ever since you were brought in here, you've been in my prayers, Mr. Garrow. You always will be."
"That's a comforting thought. With you as my advocate, maybe there's hope for me after all. Take care, Sister."
"God bless you," she whispered before disappearing from the room.
No sooner had she left him alone than Bart entered.
"Sorry I'm late, but I think you'll forgive me when you see what I've brought you. I dug through my old things in the trailer to find this for you. It was published while you were working in Brazil with your father." He handed him a copy of International Motorcycle World.
Excerpted from Rush To The Altar by Rebecca Winters Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.