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They were the poster couple for an amicable divorce, but that didn't mean seeing her ex-husband on the first day of a new job wasn't nerve-racking.
Ryleigh Evans was about to test the boundaries of their comfortable friendship and knew it was an exam she could flunk spectacularly. Any minute he would arrive in her office and she was bracing for impact. Trying to, anyway.
At Mercy Medical Center, Nick Damian, M.D., was a legend. But how did one prepare to ask a legend for the biggest favor ever?
Blackmail would be good if she had something on him, but she didn't.
Opening the top button on her blouse and showing a little cleavage might help. The problem was she didn't have much in the way of cleavage and what she did have hadn't impressed him while they were married. Two years later there was no reason to believe that had changed. Against the odds, they now had a warm and supportive friendship that she didn't want to lose.
Ryleigh had just moved back to Las Vegas from Baltimore to take the position of regional coordinator for Children's Medical Charities. The organization raised money and funded kids' projects at the hospital. Nick was a pediatric pulmonologist and it was only a matter of time until their paths crossed. She just didn't want the crossing to be another Titanic. Hence this private meeting in her office, the first available time slot in their busy schedules since she'd returned.
There was a knock on her door that seemed as loud as a gunshot and just as startling. Even though she'd been expecting it.
"Too late for cleavage," she whispered before calling out, "Come in."
Her heart was pounding and she didn't actually hear the door open, but it must have because Nick was standing there. In worn jeans and a long-sleeved white cotton shirt, one wouldn't peg him as a doctor, but the stethoscope draped around his neck was a big clue. When not wearing scrubs, this was as professional as he dressed because he'd told her once that kids were intimidated by a suit. And a tie turned into a handy weapon for a pissed-off pediatric patient who'd been poked by needles one too many times and wanted to choke someone.
She stood, walked around her desk and stopped in front of him, then reached up to give him a hug. "Hi, Nick. It's really wonderful to see you."
His arms folded her close and felt warm, strong, familiar. A bittersweet feeling squeezed her heart, but she pushed it away. This wasn't about the past. She was working on her future.
"Ryleigh," he said, against her hair. "Welcome back."
When her heart started to race, she backed several steps away and asked, "How are you?"
"Never better." Her voice was full of forced perkiness, which she hoped he didn't notice. It had been close to two years since they'd seen each other face-to-face. Their contact had been long phone calls, text messages and emails. They talked about everything including politics, books and movies. "You look great."
Understatement of the century.
He studied her with eyes that were an especially intense shade of blue and turned down just a little at the corners. They gave him a sad look, one that made every softhearted female and some who weren't so sensitive want to hug him and make whatever was bothering him better. She wasn't immune, and pushed that feeling away.
"Your hair is shorter," he finally said.
Automatically she reached up and brushed her palm over the brunette layers that barely touched her shoulders. She was surprised he'd noticed. When they were married, she'd thought about shaving her head, to see if that would get his attention. But she was afraid he wouldn't even notice something that drastic and it could have destroyed her.
"I like it," he said.
"Thanks." The compliment started a glow inside her, but she refused to give it any traction. Back on task. "In case you're wondering why I asked for this meeting"
"You figured it would be more private than bumping into me in the hospital cafeteria."
"And here we are. Being more private." He folded his arms over his chest and smiled as if he were a proud mentor. "Look at you. The new regional coordinator for CMC."
"How about that? I wanted to come backfor this job," she clarified. There was another agenda, but she needed to wait to spring that on him.
"Because of the kids," he guessed.
"That's one of the reasons."
"How long has it been? Two years?"
"That sounds about right. Since the divorce," she qualified.
"Longer then, since you moved to Baltimore before that."
"Yeah. I thought you'd come after me." Did she really say that out loud? She hadn't meant to. Something about seeing him deactivated the filter between her brain and mouth.
How naive she'd been then. She hadn't handled things well and took responsibility for the immature behavior. Her only excuse was that she'd been young and hopelessly in love. It had been almost a physical ache when she wasn't with him, which was pretty often since he always went when a patient called. He dropped everything, even her. She hadn't known how to ask for what she wanted then. But she was older, wiser and wouldn't make the same mistake now.
"Ry, if there was"
"Ancient history," she interrupted. It didn't hurt anymore because she'd made herself fall out of love with him.
Nick was the only one who'd ever called her Ry and the familiarity combined with his regretful expression caught her off guard. It struck a chord inside her that hadn't been plucked since the last time she'd seen him, and the vibration was uncomfortable.
She backed away again, then turned and moved behind her desk to sit in the high-backed black chair. "The thing is, Nick, I'm back. And it's important to me to make sure you and I are okay."
"If we weren't, it would have been pretty easy to ignore your emails, texts and phone calls."
"Still. There's no facial expression with electronic communication."
"Meaning you can tell if I'm lying?" he teased.
"You would never lie." She believed that with every fiber of her being. "But I can see if you're okay."
"What you're getting at is whether or not I'm angry that you left. The answer is that I never was. I understood."
So not what she wanted to hear. If he'd said he hated her guts, she could live with that, proof of sorts that she'd been more important to him than a lamp shade. She wasn't proud of the fact that, on some level, leaving had been about getting an emotional reaction from him, just the tiniest clue that he'd cared even a little. She'd been looking for a sliver of hope that he could fit time in his schedule for herfor them.
She'd told him about the job offer on the East Coast and spun her own personal fantasy that he would pull out all the stops to talk her out of going. The truth was closer to him not even realizing she'd gone. None of that slipped out because it was ancient history. She'd moved on and had different aspirations.
But seeing him in the flesh reminded her why he was an important component of achieving her goal. He was just as handsome as the first time she'd seen him. His thick, dark hair with the waves barely slicked into submission still made her want to run her fingers through it. His cheeks and jaw were shadowed with scruff, just like she remembered. In the beginning of the separation, she'd actually missed the "beard burn" and wondered if she needed therapy.
He still looked good. Better than she remembered. Hotter than she'd hoped.
"We're fine, Ry," he said, meeting her gaze. "I was happy to hear you were the one hired for this job."
"Yeah. You'll be a good fit."
"Okay. I'm glad you think so." She smiled. One hurdle down. That cleared the way for the ultimate friendship test. "It's really wonderful to see you."
"Same here." The grin he flashed was hot enough to melt the polar ice cap.
Once upon a time it might have fed her fascination for him, but all this time away had worked magic. The dynamic between them was different. She could see him as an attractive man and not be sucked in by the charisma.
"I like this. Friendship is the new norm." Although she had other friends and none of them made her skin tingle with just a look. It would pass. "So, my friend, can we talk business?"
Nick rested a hip on the corner of her desk. "What kind of business?"
"Money," she said. "It's my job to raise it and I get to have a good deal of input on how to spend it."
"So, I need to be nice to you?" One of his dark eyebrows went up.
"It can't hurt." She was only half joking. Getting professional was a stall until she'd worked up the nerve to discuss what was really on her mind. "I'm meeting with all the doctors who specialize in pediatric medical disciplines to find out what the most pressing needs are. I'd like your wish list for how to use the money we raise."
Without hesitation he said, "ECMO."
"Would you care to translate for those of us who don't speak doctor?"
"Extra corporeal membrane oxygenation."
"That makes it much clearer," she said dryly. "Is it a machine or a process?"
"Both." Intensity shone in his eyes. "It works on the same principle as a heart-lung machine for babies with IRDS." When he saw her look, he added, "Infant respiratory distress syndrome."
"I need more information."
He thought for several moments, probably figuring out how to dumb it down for her. "When an infant's lungs get stiff, a respirator won't do the job. ECMO takes blood outside the body, channels it through a membrane to oxygenate it, then back in. This process is literally the difference between life and death."
"Then why doesn't the hospital have it now?" She had to ask even though she already suspected the answer.
"Cost prohibitive. The powers that be don't think it's a moneymaker."
Ryleigh knew that though the hospital was nonprofit, expenses still had to be met, revenue recovered through insurance payments and invoice collection, which was all channeled back into the facility. "What happens to the babies at risk now?"
"They get transferred to Phoenix or St. George, Utah. They're the closest hospitals that have the personnel and equipment. But getting them there takes a lot of time and that's the one thing these babies don't have."
His gaze narrowed, a clue that he didn't believe she really got the severity of the need and was preparing to do battle. "ECMO is expensive."
"A million. Maybe more." He stood and put his palms flat on her desk, closing the space between them. "But the cost in terms of lives saved can't be calculated. Not only would kids here at Mercy Medical Center be helped, but other hospitals in the Vegas Valley could transfer critically ill babies here, too. In some cases adults could also be helped."
There was the intensity that had first captivated her, that passion to save lives she'd found so compelling. A passion she'd experienced on a personal level. A passion he carefully controlled. She'd eventually learned the sad lesson that professional dedication was a single-minded mistress and didn't share well with others.
"I know it's a long shot, Ry. But can you put a price tag on hope?"
How easily he'd slipped back into the familiar with her. That was both good and bad. "Get me the numbers."
"I need to know what the actual cost is, and then we can talk."
He stared at her as if she had two heads. "Really?"
He grinned again. "Should have known you couldn't say no to a baby." Baby.
One small word that tapped into her bottomless well of longing. She loved kids, all kids. The money this organization raised would go a long way to helping the sick ones get better, which was why she'd applied for this job. She'd taken it because more than anything she wanted a child of her own. This time around she and Nick were friends, and she knew how to ask for what she wanted.
Absently he picked up the nameplate from her desk and looked at it and then her. "Ryleigh Evans. I didn't know you'd gone back to your maiden name."
"It wasn't information that I felt was text message worthy. Are you surprised?"
"Only that you haven't found a guy. Married. Started a family."
"It's not that easy." Not one man she'd dated had measured up to Nick. And he'd just given her the opening she was waiting for. "But you're right. I very much want to have a child."
"That was something we probably should have discussed before we got married."
By the time she'd brought up the subject, the marriage was already in trouble. Their relationship counselors agreed that bringing a baby into the mix would only accelerate the downward spiral.
"Yeah," she said. "But everything with us happened so fast."
She'd been so swept away by the dashing Dr. Damian. Nothing and no one could have convinced her that a man who fought so hard for a child's life wouldn't want children of his own. Then she'd brought up the subject.
She couldn't call that discussion an argument. Nick never argued. He was either called away for a patient or simply left. The last time he'd put her off, she did the leaving.
"It was my fault, Ryleigh. I just It wasn't" He shook his head in frustrationa doer, not a talker. "You'll find someone and get married, have children."
"One doesn't actually have to be married to have a baby. In all this time, I haven't met anyone who made me want to take the plunge again."
"What if it takes years and my eggs turn into raisins?
Advancing age and fertility are not compatible." She folded her hands and rested them on the desk. "My parents tried for years to have a baby and it didn't happen."
"Technically, that's not accurate because you're here."
"Yeah. But by the time they did, Mom was in her forties. She called me her miracle child." Dark memories came flooding back, losing first her father and a couple years later her mom. "Some miracle."
"It really was. Do you know the odds of a woman conceiving in her forties"
"Please don't quote statistics. They were my parents and they died before I was out of high school. There was so little time with them, I used to wonder why they'd bothered. Now I understand the passion my mom felt, the yearning to have a baby because I feel it, too. But I also want to be young while my child is. More important, I want to actually be there while my child grows up."
"Don't sweat it. You're young"
"Not that young." She stared at him. "I'm twenty-eight and a half. My biological clock is ticking and the prospects for marriage aren't looking good."
"Give it time," he said.
"I did that. And I'm finished holding my breath, Nick." The bar had been set really high and that was his fault. "I'm through with waiting."
"Do you have another choice?"