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The Christmas Bouquet
By Sherryl Woods
Harlequin Enterprises Limited Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All rights reserved.
It was all because of that blasted bridal bouquet, Caitlyn Winters thought as she stared in dismay at the positive pregnancy test in her hand. From the moment she'd caught the bouquet at Jenny Collins's Christmas wedding in New York a little over a year ago, she'd been doomed. That instinctive grab of an object flying straight at her had changed her life.
Her twin sister, Carrie, who'd all but shoved her aside to try to snatch the bouquet from the air, was going to laugh herself silly at what had transpired since that night. So were the rest of the O'Briens, for that matter. They loved irony.
Noah Mcllroy, the family medicine resident whom she'd met soon after the wedding and with whom she'd been having a serious relationship since last September, tapped on the bathroom door.
"Caitlyn, are you okay?"
A hysterical laugh bubbled up, but she fought to contain it. This was no laughing matter. "Fine," she managed to squeak out just as the door opened. Noah's gaze shifted from her face to land on the test strip she was holding. Concern immediately evolved into astonishment.
"You're pregnant?" he asked, his eyes filled with surprise, but a smile already tugging at his lips.
His wonderful, sensual lips, which had gotten them into this mess, she thought wryly. Of course, she was well aware those lips hadn't caused her pregnancy. Heck, she'd known about the birds and bees long before that, thanks to all the romances in Chesapeake Shores and among her amorous O'Brien relatives.
But it was her inability to resist Noah's heated kisses that had led to all the rest. That and an apparently defective condom. Given her cautious nature, she probably should have insisted on at least three methods of birth control, but no, she'd trusted Noah when he'd assured her that the condoms would be sufficient.
The man had cast a spell over her from the minute they'd met, literally one week after she'd caught that blasted romantic bouquet with all its superstition attached like streamers of satin ribbon. The deft catch had earned hoots of laughter from her family and a stunned, disappointed scowl from her twin, who'd been angling for the bouquet all evening.
And now, here she was, barely more than a year later, and pregnant. She hadn't even accepted Noah's repeated pleas that they live together, even though he was in her apartment more often than he was in his own. She'd drawn a line at that, knowing that she'd never be able to keep his presence in her life a secret from her nosy family if they were actually living under the same roof.
And she'd wanted to keep this relationship a secret. After all, she was supposed to be the grounded, goaloriented sister. Carrie was the one everyone had expected to fall madly in love and marry before her college graduation. Instead, Carrie was jetting around the world, leading a completely carefree life, building a career in public relations for a big fashion designer and tossing away men like used tissues while she pined for one unobtainable man. And Caitlyn, thanks to that bouquet, was standing here with a positive pregnancy test in her hand!
She recalled the forget-me-nots that her aunt Bree had tucked into Jenny's simple bridal bouquet and fought back another hysterical laugh. She was hardly likely to forget this moment, that's for sure.
She drew in a deep breath and finally dared to meet Noah's gaze. For a man supposedly as dedicated to his medical career as she was to hers, he looked awfully pleased about this unexpected bump in the road. Of course, he was just a couple of months away from launching his career, while she still had the long years of an internship and residency to complete.
"Wipe that smile off your face," she instructed him firmly. "This is not good news."
His smile only spread, revealing that appealing dimple that had also sucked her right in. "It's the best possible news," he contradicted.
"Noah, you may see the light at the end of the tunnel, but be real. You'll finish your residency at the end of June and you still have to decide where you want to go into practice and get established. I haven't even started my internship. We might not even be living in the same city a few months from now. A baby doesn't fit into the plan."
"You know what they say," he began.
"Don't you dare remind me that God laughs while we're making plans."
She frowned for emphasis as she passed him on her way into the bedroom, where she sank down on the side of the bed. Maybe if she sat for a minute, she could think. Thinking clearly had always been her best trait.
She'd known what she wanted for her life by her teens. After spending a summer volunteering in a doctor's office in a medically underserved community in Appalachia and seeing reports about villages in third-world countries that were even worse off, she'd found her calling. Her reward had been the healthy children who'd clustered around her at the end of the summer to say goodbye, the moms who'd hugged her with tears in their eyes.
Just like her ambitious mother, Abby O'Brien Winters Riley, Caitlyn had thought her future through very carefully. There would be college, medical school, an internship and residency. Then she'd use all that knowledge to help children in parts of the world where medical help was severely lacking. She'd make a difference, just like everyone else in her family had in their own way. This was her way to shine, to live up to all those family expectations and at the same time do the kind of meaningful work she'd been born to do.
She'd been so focused that she'd managed to complete college in three years, then set out to whip through medical school and all of her rotations as fast as they'd allowed her to. Every summer she'd either crammed in more courses or served in another needy community, most recently in Africa with the Red Cross. While Carrie was the social butterfly, Caitlyn had been driven, not allowing a single distraction. Not until Noah, anyway.
She glanced up at him as he studied her with a worried expression. He was so incredibly gorgeous, it was little wonder that her heart seemed to stop whenever she looked at him. But it wasn't his looks that had made her fall in love. He'd seemed as driven as she was, determined to be the kind of old-fashioned doctor who was more concerned with treating his patients with compassion and dignity than racking up huge bucks on office visits and unnecessary testing.
They'd met on her rotation through the family medicine service right after that fateful wedding. She'd been immediately smitten by his dedication, the thoughtful kindness he displayed to everyone from patients to the most inept medical students still struggling to adapt book learning to practical experience. He'd turned her into a better doctor by example, no question about it. He'd suggested she waver from her original intention to focus on pediatrics and steered her into choosing family medicine. He'd helped her see that she could serve even more people with that well-rounded specialty.
Until she'd worked with him, she'd understood everything in her textbooks, but she hadn't mastered the instinctive diagnostic skills that made the difference between being competent and excelling. He'd taught her to listen to more than a list of symptoms, to hear what her patients weren't saying, as much as to what they said.
By fall, when she'd started her final year of medical school, they were in an exclusive relationship, stealing time to be together whenever they could. With their competing, demanding schedules, those stolen moments had been few and far between. Given the test strip she was holding, they'd been more than sufficient to alter her life apparently.
Noah dropped down beside her now and took her hand in his. "We're going to be okay," he said softly, his warm brown eyes filled with tenderness.
When she didn't answer, he touched her chin. "Look at me, Cait." Only after she'd turned her head, fighting tears, did he repeat, "We're going to be okay."
"How?" she asked him, unable to imagine it, unable to accept his confidently spoken reassurance.
"We'll get married," he said without hesitation. "I know we haven't talked about that yet, but you know I love you. I want a future with you. This just bumps up the timetable. I'm all but finished with my residency. I'll go into practice in July. You'll finish your internship and residency. Then you can join me in the practice."
She listened to the logical simplicity of his plan and regarded him incredulously, panicked by the certainty in his voice.
"That's your dream, Noah. Not mine. You know what I want, what I've worked so hard for. There's a big world out there in desperate need of medical help. I want to save the lives of babies in third-world countries who might not make it without a doctor in their village. The two weeks I spent in Africa last year ..." Her voice trailed off and hitched as she thought about the desperation she'd seen everywhere she'd turned. "That time confirmed everything for me. I was meant to do that kind of work. I promised I'd be back."
To his credit he didn't dismiss her dream or the promise she'd made. They'd talked about it often enough. He knew how much it meant to her to go where she was needed. It was what she'd stayed up nights studying for. She'd known it from the first time she'd seen those malnourished children with their wide desperate eyes on the news. Every volunteer assignment she'd taken after that had only solidified her resolve.
"Then how do you see this going?" he asked quietly.
She wanted to blurt out that she'd have to end the pregnancy, but how could she? While she might believe in every woman's right to choose, she knew she'd never be able to live with herself if she chose abortion. She was a healer. And this was Noah's baby, an unexpected blessing under any other circumstances.
"I don't know," she whispered, hot tears falling.
Noah pulled her into his arms and held her against his chest, surrounding her with his strength and heat and that scary, unwavering certainty. "We'll figure it out," he promised. "Together, we'll figure out what's best."
For just an instant, Caitlyn allowed herself to believe that. She desperately wanted to hold on to the possibility that there was an answer that worked for both of them. But in every scenario she envisioned, she lost.
Noah knew a baby wasn't in Cait's plans, not right now, anyway. It killed him to see her so utterly miserable when he wanted to shout his joy from the rooftop. The timing might be lousy in so many ways, but the news filled him with hope that this child would bind the two of them together forever.
She'd been right about one thing: marriage and sharing a medical practice was his dream. He'd wanted that from the minute she'd started on his service at the hospital with her exhaustive textbook knowledge of medicine, her instinctive diagnostic skills that even now she didn't recognize that she possessed and her unquenchable thirst to learn everything he had to teach her. Her silky skin and untamed red curls had captivated him, too, no question about it. Every male at the hospital stared after her as she bounced through her days with boundless energy and optimism, spreading smiles in her wake.
Over the next few weeks they'd shared enough late nights and coffee it was a wonder either of them had ever slept a wink with all that caffeine racing through their systems. He'd never been much of a talker, but with Caitlyn, he hadn't been able to keep quiet. There'd been so much he'd wanted to share, so many things about her he'd wanted to learn.
She'd made him laugh with her endless stream of stories about her large IrishAmerican family and teased him unmercifully because his own background was Scottish. She'd claimed she could never take him home because of it.
He'd thought at the time she was joking, but now he couldn't help wondering. They'd been inseparable for most of the past year, but he still hadn't been invited to Chesapeake Shores, which wasn't that far away. Was he wrong about how much he meant to her? Was he only someone with whom she could spend time until the day she finished her residency and went off to begin her "real" life? Did she view him as safe, someone she could leave behind without regrets?
No, he thought heatedly. He wasn't wrong about their feelings. He couldn't be. He wasn't the only one in love. Cait loved him, too. He might not have a lot of experience with serious relationships—how many doctors had enough time to properly date during all those years of school and training, after all?—but he could recognize that what he'd found with Cait was special.
Sitting across the room on the edge of the bed where she'd left him, he watched her now as she pulled her strawberry-red hair into a severe knot intended to tame the curls. He smiled as a few escaped to brush her cheeks. It reminded him of the way she lived her life, desperately trying to control everything, but a wild streak coming out when she least expected it. He could recall with total clarity the last time she'd cut loose with total abandon. He liked imagining that was the night this baby had been conceived, with neither of them thinking of anything but each other.
"Cait," he said softly. "I think it's time I meet this crazy family of yours."
In her mirrored reflection, he saw her eyes go wide with alarm.
"Can you think of a better time? They have to be told about what's going on."
She shook her head. "Not a chance, Noah. Not until we know what we're going to do. Maybe not even then. My mom, she's great. She'll handle this okay. My great-grandmother—"
"Nell O'Brien, right?"
Excerpted from The Christmas Bouquet by Sherryl Woods. Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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