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"What do you say you run away with me this weekend?" Sebastian Lancaster asked Sara two days later as she straightened his bedsheets during her last patient round before her shift-change report. "I know this great little place for dancing. I could show you a few steps that will make your head spin."
Sara smiled at her eighty-five-year-old patient who relied on a walker and wheezed with every breath, thanks to his years of habitual smoking. No doubt the only head that would spin with any sudden move would be his.
"No can do," she said cheerfully, already anticipating her upcoming weekend away from the daily grind of hospitals, patients and housework. "I already have plans."
"No problem." He coughed. "What is it they say? Plans are made to be broken."
"I think you're referring to rules, not plans," she corrected.
He waved a wrinkled, age-spotted hand. "Same difference. It's been ages since I've tangoed and if I'm not mistaken, you'd be good at it. Got the legs for it."
Knowing the elderly gentleman couldn't see past his elbow, she let his comment about her legs slide. "I'll bet you were quite the Fred Astaire in your day," she commented, giving the top blanket a final pat.
"Oh, I was. My wife and I could have outshone these young whippersnappers on those celebrity dance shows. So whaddya say? Wanna spring me from this joint so we can take a spin?"
She laughed at his suitably hopeful expression, although they both knew she couldn't fulfill his request. Between his emphysema and current bout of pneumonia, he was struggling to handle basic activities, much less add a strenuous activity like dancing. However, his physical limitations didn't stop this perpetual flirt from practicing his pickup lines. Sara guessed his wife must have been adept at keeping his behavior in check, or else she'd turned a blind eye to his Romeo attitude.
"Sorry, but I'm already running away this weekend," she told him, glancing at the drip rate of his IV. "With my husband, who just happens to be your doctor."
He nodded matter-of-factly, as if not particularly disappointed by his failure. "Shoulda known. The pretty ones are always taken. Must say, though " he stopped to cough " that if Doc had the good sense to pick you out of the eligible women, then he's got a good head on his shoulders."
"I like to think so," she said lightly, aware that her relationship with Cole had endured some dark days. However, in spite of the usual differences of opinion between people of diverse backgrounds and ideas, in spite of his initial reluctance to commit and in spite of her miscarriage nine months ago, life had been good.
"You two just going away for nothing better to do or for something special?"
"It's our three-year anniversary," she replied. "Actually, we still have a few weeks before the actual date, but this was the only weekend we could both get away."
"Ah, then you're still newlyweds. I'll bet you're eager to have your second honeymoon, even if it wasn't that long ago since your first, eh?" He cackled at his joke before ending on a cough.
Sara smiled. "It's always great to get away, honeymoon or not."
She'd been looking forward to this weekend for a month now and could hardly wait. Cole, on the other hand, had been preoccupied the last few days, which had been somewhat surprising because he'd been as eager to stay in the haunted historic hotel as she was.
"Too much to do before I can leave with an easy conscience," he'd said when she'd asked.
While that was probably trueas a hospitalist, he'd put in long hours to ensure the doctors covering his patients would find everything in order while he was goneshe had to wonder if something else wasn't on his mind. Still, she was confident that once they shook the dust of Nolan Heights off their feet, he'd leave those worries behind. And if distance didn't help, then the skimpy black lace negligee in her suitcase would.
"Well, go and have a good time," Sebastian said. "If he takes you dancing, dance a slow one for me." He winked one rheumy brown eye.
"I will," she promised. "When I come back to work on Monday, if you're still here, I'll tell you all about it."
"Do that," he said before he closed his eyes, clearly spent from their short conversation.
Sara strode out of the room, her soft soles silent on the linoleum. She'd begun to chart her final notes for her patients when another nurse, Millie Brennan, joined her.
"How's Mr. Lancaster this afternoon?"
Sara smiled at the twenty-six-year-old, somewhat jealous of her strawberry blond tresses when her own short hair was unremarkably brown. The only plus was that Sara's curls were natural whereas Millie's came from a bottle.
"As sassy as ever. Given his medical condition, it's amazing how he can still flirt with us."
"Wait until he feels better," Millie said darkly. "Then he'll grab and pinch. When he does, it's a sign he's ready to go back to his assisted living home."
"I'll keep it in mind," Sara said.
"So," Millie said in an obvious prelude to a change of subject, "are you packed and ready to go tomorrow?"
Sara smiled. "Almost. I just have to throw a few last-minute things into my bag and I'm ready. Cole, on the other hand, hasn't started. I'm going to work on his suitcase as soon as I get home."
Millie grinned. "Don't forget to pack a swimsuit. And that teddy we bought a few weeks ago."
"Those were the first things in the case," Sara answered, already looking forward to modeling the lacy negligee under her husband's admiring gaze. While most people thought they were going to enjoy ski slopes and mountain hikes, Sara had planned a far more private itineraryan itinerary that focused only on the two of them.
"When are you leaving?" Millie asked.
"Our flight leaves early tomorrow morning. We'd thought about staying the night at one of the airport hotels, but it depends on Cole. You know how he is." Sara added, "He can't leave if he doesn't have every i dotted when it comes to his patients." She was convinced that was why everyone thought so highly of her husbandhe didn't cut corners for convenience's sake.
She sighed. "Sometimes, his attention to detail is rather frustrating, especially when it interferes with our plans."
"Yeah, but you love him anyway."
Sara had half fallen in love with him the first day she'd met him, when he'd waltzed onto her floor as a first-year family medicine resident. She'd been suffering her own new-job jitters and he'd taken pity on her when she'd knocked a suture tray off the counter in obvious nervousness. The cup of coffee he'd subsequently bought her and the pep talk he'd delivered had marked the beginning of their professional and personal relationship.
"Yeah, I do," she said, returning Millie's grin with one of her own. "The only problem I have right now is knowing what to get him for Christmas. It's still two months away, but it'll be here before we know it."
"Has he mentioned anything that he wants?"
"Lots of things, but afterward he goes out and buys them for himself. I've told him not to do that, but so far it hasn't made an impression."
"It will when he wakes up on Christmas morning and there's nothing to open under the tree," Millie predicted. "Or you could just fill a box with socks and underwear."
"I could," Sara agreed, "but I couldn't be that cruel. I'm sure I'll get an idea this weekend."
"Well, good luck. As my mother always says, what do you get a man who has everything?"
What indeed? Sara thought. The one thing she'd wanted to give himnews that he'd be a fatherwasn't something she could accomplish on her own, no matter how hard she wished for her dream to come true. Having grown up with a sister and two brothers, she wanted her house to ring with the same pitter-patter of footsteps as her parents' house had.
Be patient, Cole had reminded her. She'd try, she told herself. So what if it took them a little longer for their family to grow than she'd like? As long as it happened, as long as they loved each other, it would be worth the wait.
Fortunately, for the rest of her shift, she had little time to dwell on her personal plans, but the minute she left the hospital shortly after six o'clock, her thoughts raced ahead to her upcoming weekend.
Her excitement only grew when she found the lights blazing in their home and Cole's SUV parked in the garage.
Pleased that Cole had finished earlier than she'd expected, she dashed through the cold garage and into her cozy house.
"This is a pleasant surprise," she called out to Cole from the mud room as she tugged off her gloves and hung her parka on a coat hook. "I honestly didn't think you'd make it home before eight."
He rose from his place at the table as she entered the kitchen and kissed her on the cheek. "Things turned out differently than we'd both anticipated," he answered with a tight smile that, with his strained expression, set off her mental radar. "How about some coffee?"
He turned away to dump several sweetener packets into his own mug. "You never drink caffeine at this time of night," she said as she watched his movements with a knot forming in her stomach. "What's wrong?"
"It's cold outside. How about hot tea instead?"
He was trying to distract her, which only meant that something was wrong. Horribly wrong. The knot tightened.
"Cole," she warned. "I know it's cold, but I'm not thirsty or hungry. Something is obviously on your mind. What is it?" As a thought occurred to her, she gasped. "Oh, no. We can't go on our trip, can we? Something happened and Chris can't cover for you at the hospital. Oh, Cole," she finished on a wail. "Not again!"
"Sara," he interrupted. "Stop jumping to conclusions. This isn't about my schedule. Just. Sit. Down."
She sat. With her hands clasped together in her lap, she waited. He sank onto the chair beside hers and carefully set his mug on the table. "An attorney spoke with me today."
Dread skittered down her spine. A lawyer never visited a physician with good news. "Is someone suing the hospital?
"No, nothing like that. Mr. Maitland is a partner in a law firm based in Tulsa."
"Tulsa?" Knowing he'd grown up in that area of Oklahoma, she asked, "Does this involve your relatives?"
"Then what did he want with you?"
"Do you remember reading the newspaper article about the medical helicopter crash the other day?"
"Yes. We'd talked about one of the nurses. I can't remember her name "
"Ruth Warren," he supplied.
"Yeah. What about the crash?"
"As it turns out, I did know this particular Ruth Warren. Quite well, in fact."
His shock was understandable. She reached out to grab his hand, somewhat surprised by his cold fingers. "I'm sorry."
"In high school, we were good friends, although I've only seen her once since then. At our class reunion a few years ago."
She furrowed her brow in thought. "You never mentioned a class reunion. When was this?"
"Remember those ten days in July, after you and I had broken up?"
"Yes," she said cautiously.
"During that time, I went to my class reunion. It was over the Fourth of July weekend, and I didn't have anything else to do, so I went."
"Really? Knowing how you've avoided going back to the area so you can't accidentally run into your relatives, I'm surprised."
"Yeah, well, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision," he said wryly. "Anyway, during that weekend, I met up with Ruth."
She touched his hand. "I'm glad you had a chance to reconnect with her after high school. Had you heard from her since then?"
"No. Not a word."
Sara had assumed as much because Cole had never mentioned her, but he was a closemouthed individual and often didn't mention those things he considered insignificant.
"Then what did the lawyer want?"
"He represents Ruth's estate. She named me, us, in her will."
Sara sat back in her chair, surprised. "She did? What did she do? Leave you her box of high school memorabilia?"
She'd expected her joke to make him smile, but it fell flat, which struck her as odd.
"She left us something more valuable than a box of dried corsages and school programs," he said evenly. "She entrusted the most important thing she had to us. Her son."
"Her son?" Of all the things he might have said, nothing was as shocking as this. "How old is he?"
"He's two and a half. His birthday was in April. April 2."
Surprise and shock gave way to excitement. "Oh, Cole," she said, reaching across the table to once again take his hand, her heart twisting at the thought of that motherless little boy. "He's practically a baby."
As she pondered the situation, she began to wonder why this woman had chosen them out of all the people she possibly could have known.
"Exactly why did she appoint us as his guardians? She never met me and you said yourself that you hadn't kept in contact with her. What about the boy's dad? Or her family? Didn't she have friends who were closer to her than you are? I'm not complaining, mind you. I'm only trying to understand why she gave him to people who are, for all intents and purposes, relative strangers, instead of choosing substitute parents who were within her current circle of friends."
"She had no family to speak of," he told her. "Ruth grew up in foster care and as soon as she graduated, she was on her own."
"If you hadn't seen her for three years, it's especially odd she'd ask us to take care of him. There has to be a connection"
"There is," he said, clutching his mug with both hands. "But to explain it, I have something to confess."