Late FebruaryDr. Lily Wescott stood at the podium, peering through the spotlight into the sea of faces in the hotel ballroom. Many grinned and waved as she prepared to accept the Medical Professional Woman of the Year Award.
She brushed tears away, stunned and totally overwhelmed. These days, she blamed the rise and fall of her emotions on her pregnancy, though memories of the husband she'd lost in Afghanistan were never far from her heart.
Suddenly an odd sensation gripped her back and a cramp rippled through her stomach. As best she could, she fought to keep her shoulders back and a smile on her face. She couldn't go into labor now! She was only at thirty-three weeks.
But she was an ob/gynand she knew all too well that her twins would come when they were ready. Lily could only hope for the best
"Thank you," she said into the microphone. "I never imagined I'd win this award." She'd really expected one of her friends at the table to win. After all, they were all baby experts at the Family Tree Health Center in Lubbock, Texas. She went on, "At the Family Tree Fertility Center, we strive to help women who"
A second cramp squeezed Lily's side and she caught the wooden podium for support. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her friend and colleague, Dr. Mitch Catega, jump to his feet, concern on his face. He rushed to the stage and up the steps.
As she managed to suck in a gulp of air, hot liquid washed down her leg. Oh, GodI am in labor!
She was not going to panic. She was not going to crumple to the floor. She was not going to be embarrassed.
At her side now, Mitch's arm curled around her waist
his injured arm. The one he never let anyone see, she thought, needing something other than the pain to concentrate on. His arm was always covered, tonight by a well-cut black tuxedo that made his shoulders seem even broader than usual. She'd noticed that tonight
and it wasn't the first time
"Can you walk?" he asked, his breath warm at her ear.
A murmur swept through the audience.
She turned, the side of her cheek brushing his chin. "I'm not sure."
Mitch's angular jaw tightened, his almost-black gaze held hers with
something she couldn't define. But then it was replaced by the empathy and compassion she'd felt from him many times before. "The twins are our main priority. Hold on to me if you can't stand on your own."
She really thought she could. The cramp faded away. If it weren't for the wetness between her legs, she could deny what was happening.
With Mitch's arm still around her, she took a couple of steps. Maybe she could even give the rest of her acceptance speech
The lance of pain that pierced her back stole her breath and weakened her knees. She exhaled, "Mitch."
And he was there
lifting her into his arms
carrying her down the dais steps.
"I'm driving her to the hospital myself," Mitch said, as Lily's friends and colleagues rushed toward him. "It will be quicker than waiting for an ambulance."
"And more economical," Lily realized aloud, trying to think practically. But that was difficult with Mitch's cologne reminding her of the last time he'd held her so close on the day she'd discovered she was having twins. His grip felt safe now as it had then
as if no harm could come to her while she was in his arms.
She must be delusional.
"I'll ride with you," Jared Madison offered as he jogged alongside Mitch and pushed open the ballroom door. "I'll be handy if the twins won't wait, since Lily's doctor is at a conference."
Jared had his own obstetrical practice at Family Tree but took turns covering with the doctors in her practice. Lily knew and liked Jared and felt comfortable with him. Still, she murmured, "They'd darn well better wait. It's too early. They'll be too small!" Her last words almost caught in her throat and her bravado deflated.
In the middle of the hotel lobby, Mitch stopped. Looking her directly in the eye, he said, "If you panic, Lily, you won't help the babies. Take calming breaths. You can do this."
Her heart felt lighter, as if Mitch was really part of this pregnancy, too. Not just because her husband had asked him to watch over her but because he cared. "If I'd taken the childbirth classes this month instead of next" She'd been putting them off, maybe trying to deny the inevitablethat yet again, her life would be altered in an earth-shattering way.
"The twins would still come early," he reminded her. "They apparently want to meet their mom now."
Yes, they did. And she wanted to meet them. She couldn't wait to hold them and tell them how much she loved them. How much their daddy would have loved them.
Mitch's expression was gentle, as if he could read her thoughts, but his gaze didn't waver. His arms were so strong. For a moment, she felt a little trill of excitement in her chest. But that was because of the babieswasn't it?
"Let's go," she whispered, shaken by the emotions she didn't understand.
Mitch paced the maternity floor waiting room and stopped when he saw Lily's friends watching him peculiarly. He didn't like the worried expressions on their faces. Raina, Gina and Tessa were all baby experts. Along with them, he knew premature babies often had problemsthirty-three weeks was iffy.
Trying to loosen up the tight feeling in his shoulder, arm and handinjuries that reminded him all too often of his service in IraqMitch flexed them, then sank down on one of the vinyl chairs.
Moving forward on the sofa, Tessa said gently, "It really hasn't been that long."
What was worrying Mitch was that they hadn't heard anything in the hour they'd been here. Closing his eyes, he remembered the day Lily had learned she was having twins. It had been the week before Thanksgiving. One of the techs in the office had performed the ultrasound. Mitch had just finished discussing fertility procedure options with a couple. As his clients had headed for the reception area, he'd noticed Lily exit the exam room, her complexion almost sheet-white, her blue eyes very bright.
"The ultrasound go okay?" he'd asked.
"Oh, Mitch, I'm having twins!"
He hadn't been able to tell if she was totally elated or totally terrified.
Clasping her hand, he'd pulled her into the office he'd just vacated. "What's going through your head?"
She'd stood at the chair in front of his desk, holding on to it for support. "The obvious. I'll be a single mom. My friends all say they'll help, but these babies will be my responsibility."
"Twins will always have each other," he pointed out. "They won't grow up lonely. They'll be able to play together." He hoped Lily could see the upside of this monumental news. "Girls or boys?"
"Our techs are pretty good at distinguishing the difference."
Lily had actually blushed a little. Until he'd met her, he didn't think women blushed anymore. But she was blonde with fair skin and all of her emotions seemed to show in her complexion. Major ones had played over her face over the past few monthsgrief, fear, determination and the sheer loss of her husband.
"Troy would be so proud," she'd said, tears beginning to run down her face.
That's when Mitch had done something he never should have done. He'd taken her into his arms. She'd laid her head on his shoulder, crying. And he'd felt desire that had no place in that room.
Mitch had met Troyat that time Troy and Lily had been engagedwhen the Family Tree staff had planned a dinner to welcome Mitch into the practice. Since he'd once served in the Army National Guard and Troy still had, they'd developed an immediate rapport, becoming friends. After Troy and Lily married, Troy had even asked Mitch to watch over Lily while he'd served overseas.
But then Troy had been killed in action, leaving Lily pregnant and alone.
When Lily had finally looked up at him, Mitch hadn't been sure what he'd seen there. Yet he'd known damn well it hadn't been interest. Gratitude, maybe?
She'd pulled away, wiped her eyes and mumbled an awkward apology, and they'd gone their separate ways. They'd gone back to being colleagues. She hadn't really confided in him again.
That was okay. Being merely colleagues was safer for both of them.
Now, however, it was the last week in February and she was in labor. When he'd seen her double over on that dais, he'd felt panic twist his gut.
"Mitch!" A male voice called his name.
When he opened his eyes, he saw Jared, gesturing from the hall.
He stood immediately. "What's going on?"
"She wants you."
"What do you mean, she wants me?"
"She's in labor, and she wants you to coach her."
Her friends all glanced his way. He knew they were wondering why and so was he. But he wasn't going to ask Jared his questions. He was going to ask Lily.
"Suit up," Jared advised him. "When you're ready, she's in delivery room two."
Five minutes later, Mitch had pulled sterile garb over his clothes. It would feel strange being back in an operating-room setting, even though he had to admit a delivery room wasn't exactly that. When he'd rushed through the ER with Lily, one of the nurses had waved at him. Years ago, she'd worked with him in trauma surgery.
Sometimes he itched to be doing that kind of work again. Reflexively, he bent his fingers, most of them not responding well. But he'd gotten used to limited use of his right hand, as well as insomnia and nightmares. At least the stiffness in his shoulder and leg could be relieved with the right amount of exercise. He was damn lucky he'd left Iraq with his life. There was no point in complaining about what might have been. Changing his specialty to endocrinology had saved his sanity.
When he pushed open the door of the delivery room, he forgot about whether he should or shouldn't be there. Seeing Lily on the table, her face flushed, her hands clenched tight on the sheet, a protective urge took over. She was hooked up to monitors that measured the frequency and intensity of contractions as well as the babies' heart rates. She looked small and frightened
and fragile. Yet he knew she was the strongest woman he'd ever known. She'd proved that since her husband had died.
He strode to the bed, hooked a stool with his foot and positioned it beside her. Glancing at Emily Madison, Jared's wife and a professional midwife, he asked, "Don't you want Emily to coach you?"
Lily pushed damp hair behind her ear. "She's assisting Jared."
He knew why he was fighting being here. Witnessing a woman in labor, watching a birth, was an intimate experience. Right now, bonding with Lily would be foolish.
He could see a contraction gearing up in intensity. Maybe she just wanted him here instead of one of her friends because he might be more detached yet professional about the births.
With a mental kick that he hoped would push him toward that detachment, he took hold of her hand, felt the softness and warmth of it.
Suddenly she squeezed his fingers so hard he lost any feeling he did have left. But the pressure reminded him he had a job to do. If he concentrated on coaching, maybe he wouldn't notice how her chin quivered or how her eyes grew shiny with emotion.
When the contraction eased, he admitted, "I'm not sure how best to help you."
"You worked with men in the field. You helped them. Help me the same way. Just help me focus on something."
She was right. He had helped men before and after surgeries, with mortar blasts exploding, with rocket-propelled grenades shattering the air. Finally he really did understand why she wanted him here.
Realizing what he had to do, he smoothed his thumb over the top of her hand, telling himself his need to touch her was simply for her comfort. "Watch my nose," Mitch ordered Lily.
She looked at him as if he was crazy. "You're kidding, right?"
"I'm not. Use it as your focal point and listen to the sound of my voice."
She focused on his eyes instead of his nose. He saw so many emotions thereworry, hope and grief
the resoluteness he'd admired as she'd exhibited it each day, ready to go on with her life and care for her twins.
Mitch saw her tense and turned to the monitor. With another contraction coming, he squeezed her hand. "You can do this."
She was still looking into his eyes instead of at his nose. He felt as if his heart was going to jump out of his chest. He felt as if
he shouldn't be here. Again, he warned himself that he couldn't make such an intimate connection. He should just be watching over her.
But how could he watch over her without getting involved?
At this moment, he wished he'd never made that promise to Troy.
At the foot of the bed, Emily said, "Lily, you can start pushing now."
At that moment, neonatologist Francesca Fitzgerald came into the room with two nurses behind her. Lily gasped, "Francesca."
The doctor patted Lily's arm and summed up the situation with a quick assessment. "My team's here. You do your part and we'll take care of the rest."
Lily's contraction peaked and her cry of pain sliced through Mitch.
Jared encouraged her. "Good one, Lily. Come on. I want this baby out."
"You can do this," Mitch reminded her. He held her hand as the tension built in her body again. Her face reddened and she gave another fantastically effort-filled push.
All at once he heard Jared say, "I've got one!"
"Is she all right?" Lily asked. "Please tell me she's all right."
A light infant cry came from the area where Fran-cesca was standing. It was very soft, but it was a cry.
"She's a beauty," Jared told her. "We might have a few minutes now. I want to get her sister out, as quickly as I can."
"I don't think I have a few minutes," Lily gasped. "It's starting again." She practically sat up with the strength and pain of the contraction.
"Use it," Mitch said. "Go with it."
"Just one more push," Emily encouraged her. "She's your youngest. You're going to have to coax her a little harder."
Mitch realized Lily wasn't focusing on him anymore. She was breathing when she had to, breathing any way she could.