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River Mack Ranch, Texas
You're letting a baby choose your wife?" Jamie MacDowell chose not to answer that question. Instead, he contemplated the campfire as he let his brother's outraged tone roll off his back. Braden, his oldest brother, cared. That was the real emotion behind the outrage. Jamie had gotten much better at recognizing emotions in the past two years.
"Hire a nanny for the baby. You don't have to marry anyone." His other brother, Quinn, sounded less outragedbut more condescending.
The sounds of the Texas twilight settling over their parents' land filled the silence as Jamie stretched his legs out. He flicked a glance around the fire. It figured: he'd taken the identical pose as his brothers. Braden, Quinn and now Jamie sat with jean-clad legs stretched out fully, each man with his right cowboy boot crossed over his left. It was funny, really, the subconscious mannerisms families shared.
Two years ago, Jamie would have probably uncrossed his ankles, just to be different. But that was before Afghanistan. Before more than a year spent sewing up soldiers in an army hospital.
Before he'd brought his son, Sam, to the United States.
"A nanny can do the job perfectly well," Quinn continued. "You don't need a wife to take care of a baby."
"To take care of my son," Jamie corrected him. It was going to take his brothers some time to get used to the news that he was a father. He hadn't communicated much while he was deployed. Returning to Texas with a nine-month-old had shocked them all. "Not 'a baby.' My son."
"Right. He can be well cared for by a good nanny."
Jamie uncrossed his ankles. Neither of his brothers were parents. They didn't understand the impact, the complete sea change, of having a child. When he held Sam, Jamie knew that he was holding the most important thing in the world. It was a powerful emotion, one that ultimately made his life utterly simple. What his son needed, Jamie would provide.
His son needed a mother.
Not a nanny.
"I'm working in the E.R.," Jamie said. "You know the hours. What nanny is going to be available nights, days, whole twenty-four-hour periods without notice?"
"Get a live-in nanny." Naturally, Quinn had an immediate answer. He was a cardiologist. That particular species of doctor tended to be very mathoriented. Their world was physics. Pressure, diameter, beats per minute. Black and white.
In contrast, as an emergency physician, Jamie often had to wing it. Thinking on the fly, he came up with theories, tested and discarded them, until he'd diagnosed and stabilized whatever emergency had brought the patient to the hospital.
In Afghanistan, there'd been only one kind of emergency: injury. Some injuries were catastrophic, caused by explosives that destroyed so much of the body, Jamie raced the clock to stop the bleeding and keep the heart beating. Some were minor, a finger sliced open when a rifle was cleaned carelessly. All of themall of themrequired stitches. Sewing. Surgery. Jamie had performed more surgery as an emergency physician in the United States Army than many surgeons did in civilian life.
"What if I get deployed again?" Jamie asked both brothers. "Will the nanny guarantee her services for the length of my deployment? Will she write to me about Sam? Send me photos?"
Braden abruptly sat up from his lounging position. "I thought you were back to reserve duty, the one-weekend-a-month thing until your commitment was up. Did you sign a new contract?"
Jamie wanted to smile at the predictability of Braden's response. Like Quinn and himself, Braden was also an M.D., but he ran the research side of a massive corporation. He thought in terms of contracts and legalities, of facts on paper. Like Quinn, Braden saw everything as black and white.
The way their father had seen the world.
Jamie stopped lounging, too. With a firm thunk, he set his half-finished bottle of beer on the dry Texas ground by his chair. He wasn't like his father. Sam would have a better man to raise him.
"I'm in the reserves for another six months. I could be recalled to active duty tonight."
Now Quinn sat up abruptly. Jamie felt their tension as both men looked at him intently.
"It's okay," Jamie said quietly. "It's highly unlikely the army will send me back in the next six months."
Braden dropped his gaze to the crackling fire. "It's not that we aren't proud of you."
"I know. I'm proud to have served, too. There are times I've considered volunteering to go back. There's so much work left to be done there." Work that he'd seen one brave woman undertake. Work to promote literacy in the population. Work to provide health care to the poorest of the poor. Work to end the slavelike conditions in which so many Afghani girls were raised.
Work that had ultimately killed that one brave woman, leaving Jamie to raise Sam alone.
"A nanny's not good enough. I want a wife. If something should happen to me, Sam will still have a legal guardian. An American legal guardian."
"He's your son, Jamie. Do you think we'd let the state put him in an orphanage?"
"No." Jamie was touched. Braden had said your son. He, at least, was getting used to the idea of Sam being a Mac-Dowell, not just a baby brought home from a war-torn country. "But Mom's getting a little old to start over again with an infant, and look at you. Both of you. A couple of bachelor doctors with insane working hours. Sam needs a fulltime parent."
"Then hire a lawyer and make the nanny his legal guardian." Quinn was still seeing in black and white, apparently, but Jamie had already come up with that theory and ruled it out.
"It's easier to get married. A wife's custody is rarely questioned."
There had been no way to legally marry Sam's mother, not on the American base, nor in any Afghani court or mosque. In the end, after her death, that had meant no locals would claim Sam as their own, either. Jamie had been able to get Sam out of the country by mixing State Department regulations and medical necessity, but if the paperwork ever got scrutinized
If. He wouldn't worry about that now. And if If happened, Sam belonging to an American husband and wife would be beneficial, compared to Sam being the child of a bachelor soldier.
Yes, Sam needed a mother. An American mother. Simple.
"I'm fine with a marriage based on practicality," he told his brothers. "I never planned on getting married for any other reason."
"You're sure about that?" Quinn asked.
Jamie sat back in his camp chair and picked up his beer. He brushed the sandy dirt off the bottom of the bottle. When he'd been in Afghanistan, he'd told himself the dry soil wasn't so different from Texas. He'd even been able to squint at the landscape and imagine himself home, if home had a lot of barbed wire and sandbag bomb shelters.
"I'm sure," Jamie said. "Doctors make lousy husbandslook at Dad. He had no time for Mom. No time for any of us. Without Mom, we wouldn't have had a parent at all. My kid needs a mother."
Braden studied the label on his own beer bottle for a moment. "You're not being fair to Dad. We had those fishing trips."
"Yeah, once a year we'd saddle up the horses and pack up the tents and come out here to spend, what? Four days? With a guy we barely knew."
"Still, he tried."
"Yeah, he would have made a fine uncle. Not my idea of a father. My son is going to have a real parent, someone there for him every day, not just for a camping trip now and then. If something happens to me, he's going to have another parent to finish raising him. I'll be damned if I'll leave him alone in this world. I'm getting married, and that's it."
"Slow down, Jamie. What happens if you find this perfect mother, but then you fall in love with another woman, someone you want for something besides mothering? Are you going to divorce the mother of your child to marry the woman you're crazy about? An affair won't cut it. I don't care what this 'perfect mother' agrees to, she's not going to be a Mrs. MacDowell and willingly turn a blind eye to her husband having an affair."
"I'm not going to cheat on my wife, even if we aren't in that kind of a marriage."
"You need to think this through. I've been in love, Jamie." Braden rarely talked about it, but he'd been engaged once. "It can hit you like a lightning strike."
Jamie stood up and pulled the keys to his truck out of his pocket. "It already did, Braden, it already did."
"She died. Her name was Amina. She was brilliant. Beautiful. An Afghani woman who translated for me on medical missions. She died during the birth and she left me a son."
Jamie dumped the rest of his beer onto a struggling scrub plant, then chucked the bottle into the bed of his pickup truck. "Lightning won't strike twice."
The shocked silence wasn't what Jamie had intended to cause. He clapped Quinn on the shoulder and used the side of his boot to push his stillfull beer cooler toward his brother's camp chair. "You finish these for me this weekend. Mom's been watching Sam long enough. I'm gonna run."
Jamie had been away from his son for nearly two hours, and that was too long.
Braden followed him to the pickup. "Jamie. You never told us about the mother of the baby. Sam is really your child, then? Your biological child?"
Damn it. Even his own brothers hadn't believed Sam was his son. How would he convince the State Department? He needed to be married and have Sam legally adopted by his wife, in case they started asking.
"I'm not in the mood for a big-brother lecture, Braden." He loved his oldest brother. Braden had filled more of a father role for him than their father had, but when it came to his own life, Jamie knew what he was doing. He'd come to the ranch today to let his brothers know what his plans were as a courtesy, not so they could tell him he was wrong to want to secure a second parent for Sam as quickly as possible.
"I'm not lecturing," Braden said in a voice made for lecturing. "When do we meet this not-really-a-wife of yours?"
"I don't know who she is yet." Jamie opened the truck door and stepped up on the running board. "No woman I already know fits the bill."
"No woman will. I can't imagine who is going to want your son and not want you."
Ah, the blind loyalty of family. Braden was certain women would fall all over his little brother. He didn't know that most women gave up pursuing Jamie nowadays. His mourning for Amina showed somehow, he was sure.
His son was the only thing that brought a smile to his face now. As he thought of Sam, Jamie felt himself start to grin. "This isn't about me finding a wife. This is about Sam finding a mother. That's why I'm letting him choose her."
Jamie closed the truck door. As he drove away from the old homestead, a new feeling settled over him. A certainty that he was on the right course. Contentment, almost. He'd loved Amina, and now he loved their son. Building his life around his son's needs was the right thing to do.
He wondered whom Sam would fall in love with. He wondered whom his son would choose for him to marry.
Kendry Harrison was a general dogsbody. It wasn't the loveliest term, but it accurately summed up her career at West Central Hospital. She'd like to think that she was at least a gopher, but that would imply she worked for someone important who needed her to run errands. No such luck. She was just a general dogsbody, plugged into whatever entry-level job needed doing. Today, she was working in the pediatric ward.
Kendry loved the pediatric ward, even if it broke her heart half the time. Kids were kids, though, and even when they sported IV tubing and wore hospital gowns, they tended to be adorable. Kendry loved their earnestness when they described their little lives. She loved their willingness to play as hard as they possibly could, even when they found themselves forced to use their wrong hand or unable to climb out of a wheelchair.
Unlike the adult patients, the kids were still eager to grab life with both handsunless they were in pain. Although an infant named Myrna was due to be discharged today, Kendry wondered if the little girl was in pain. Hour after hour, Myrna had been growing quieter and quieter. Kend-ry's shift was over in only minutes, but she couldn't leave Myrna without trying, one more time, to get the nurse to pay attention to the change in the baby's behavior.
She pushed the button to call the nurses' station. Again.
"What is it this time, Kendry?" The voice over the speaker was clearly irritated.
"I'd like a nurse to check on Myrna Quinones for me, please." If she kept her voice cool and factual, the way the doctors and nurses spoke, then she would be taken more seriously. Unfortunately, her nose was stuffy, and she barely grabbed a tissue in time for a sneeze.
"We've checked on her every hour. She's fine. She'll be going home when her mother gets off work today." And then, with the most sarcastic version of sugary sweetness the nurse could muster, her tinny voice came over the speaker. "And you're officially off work now, so go on home, darlin'. Take something for that cold, or you'll get all the children sick."
"I'm fine, thank you," Kendry said through clenched teeth. "It's just allergies."
She was the only adult in the pediatric ward's playroom, making it impossible for her to leave, but she resisted the urge to point that out to the nurse. Instead, she released the intercom's talk button and went to the sink to wash her hands for the fiftieth time of the day.
Every young patient who was able spent a good part of his or her waking hours in the ward's colorful playroom. There were hard plastic chairs and tables that could be sprayed down with bleach, plenty of floor space for children to play while they tugged along their wheeled poles with their hanging IV bags. A few of the children were not patients, but were the children of staff members. As long as the child wasn't contagious, staff members could pay a small fee to have their child spend the day in the playroom when their regular childcare fell througha benefit that made West Central Texas Hospital one of Austin's top-rated employers.
For doctors, the policy was even more lenient. If it meant doctors would show up for every shift, the hospital was happy to provide childcare. These kids Kendry got to know well. One of them, a little charmer named Sammy, was demanding her attention now, as he often did.
Kendry scooped him off the floor and settled him on her hip. "That's right, Sammy. It doesn't matter if I'm off the clock, I'm not going home and leaving Myrna here in this condition, now am I?"
Sammy didn't get a chance to coo or babble an answer to her, because the person scheduled to replace Kendry had arrived and was listening in.
"Which one's Myrna?" she asked.
Kendry thought her replacement was kidding. For a second. One look at the woman's facePaula, she remem-beredrevealed that she wasn't.
"Myrna is the little girl whose hand I'm holding. She was technically discharged because we were short beds, but her mother has to work, so admin said she could stay here." The little girl's belongings were packed in a plastic bag and her IV lines had been removed upon discharge, but her crib had been wheeled into the playroom until her mother could come to pick her up. Her room had already been filled by another patient.
"What time is her mother supposed to arrive?"
"Not for another hour. I don't want to leave Myrna like this."