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On a Wednesday morning in early December, Dr. Mark Rayburn set out on foot from his house, enjoying the crisp ocean breeze through the palm trees but already eagerly anticipating his arrival at Safe Harbor Medical Center. This was his hospital.
He'd bought a house four blocks away to avoid southern California's infamously long commutes and also because he liked being able to drop in frequently at the center, whether at night or early in the morning or on holidays. Long hours weren't a burden; they were a privilege.
He didn't want or need a family, because he already had one. As administrator, he guided and nudged and cheered for his staff. As an obstetrician, he nurtured mothers and helped babies take their miraculous first breath. And now he had a chance to make a real difference in the world, to help even more women and families. What could be better than that?
At the edge of the medical center, Mark paused to admire the hospital's clean lines and curving, window-lined wings. The six-story structure anchored a complex that included a medical office building, a parking garage and a dental building that the hospital's corporate owner was acquiring to turn into a fertility center.
This was his dream, the reason he'd become an administrator and moved from Florida to California. Soon, he'd be assembling a world-class team of doctors and support staff so that even more families could turn their dreams into reality.
Still, excited as he was about the fertility center plans, he never slighted the less showy part of his domain. Sauntering past a profusion of birds-of-paradise plants and calla lilies, Mark bypassed the staff entrance and walked through the wide central doors into the lobby. Coming in this way helped him stay in touch with what ordinary patients experienced.
Today, the place glittered with holiday spirit. Busy elves from the Hospital Guild Auxiliary had festooned the lobby with twinkling white lights and Santa faces beaming from wreaths. To one side, gingerbread men and miniature porcelain baby dolls dangled from a nonallergenic tree.
Nostalgia and painful memories twisted inside Mark. Brushing aside the ghosts of Christmases past, he quickened the pace of his informal patrol.
At a little past 7:00 a.m., the gift shop hadn't opened yet, but the clatter of breakfast dishes echoed from the nearby caféteria. As he strode along a corridor, he heard an instructor exhorting an aerobics class to greater exertions in the workout room, and paused to let an orderly pass with a cart full of medications.
"Hey, Dr. Rayburn." The young man gave him an easy grin.
"Good morning, Bob." Mark made a point of remembering his staff's names.
He had a lot of them rattling around in his brain as he mounted the stairs. Names of doctors, nurses, lab techs, secretaries and, of course, patients. Even though he'd been an administrator for the last five of his thirty-seven years, including two here at Safe Harbor, he still found time to provide one-on-one treatment.
On the third floor, he stopped by labor and delivery to greet the hardworking nurses and find out how his maternity patients were doing. He'd delivered five babies yesterday, including triplets born to a young mom.
"Everyone's fine." His nurse, Lori Ross, updated him on the essentials. Two of the three new mothers would be going home today, while the triplets' mom, Candy Alarcon, needed another day or so to recuperate from her cesarean section. "The pediatrician's talking to her now."
"Dr. Sellers?" Neonatologist Jared Sellers had examined the babies in the delivery room. He also happened to be Lori's ex-fiancé, and therefore a touchy subject.
"Uh, no." She gave him a shaky smile. "Dr. Forrest."
You couldn't in all fairness describe Samantha Forrest as a thorn in his side, Mark reflected as he headed toward the patients' rooms. He valued her dedication and her passion for social justice. The problem was that she tended to be a bit of a drama queen.
As did Candy, an unmarried nineteen-year-old whom Samantha had counseled through a volunteer program. That made them an unpredictable combination.
To give them a chance to talk freely, Mark decided to visit his other two patients first.
"No one said this was going to be easy," Samantha told the young woman in the bed. "I just don't want you to look back in ten or twenty years and ask, why did I let them go? You've been so eager to keep them until now. It's normal to have second thoughts."
Candy's bow-shaped mouth twisted. Curly hair framed a pretty face that hid the insecurities of a girl who'd grown up alternately indulged and abandoned by troubled parents. "Honestly, Dr. Forrest, I do want to be a good mother. But I feel overwhelmed. And one of them's got that that thing on her face."
"It's called a port-wine stain." Sam wished she had baby Connie and her sister and brother in the room to remind Candy of how adorable they were, but, as a precaution, they were still being monitored in the intermediate-care nursery. As for the purplish blotch on Connie's cheek, it was superficial rather than an indication of any serious syndrome. "We can treat that with lasers, and if it doesn't completely go away, she can cover it with makeup when she's older."
"It might not go away?" Candy asked anxiously.
"Sometimes a trace remains. But your babies are healthy. That's a blessing, especially with triplets."
Since meeting the young mother months ago at a teen moms' support group that Sam had organized, she'd arranged for prenatal treatment and put Candy in touch with a nonprofit agency that would provide temporary nursing care after the infants went home. In addition, a local charity had pledged to collect baby supplies and used cribs. Sam had spent hours calling and organizing to arrange it all, but it was worth the effort to get this family off to a good start.
"My boyfriend says she's ugly. I thought he'd love them the way I do." Candy drooped against the pillow.
Samantha winced. "Give Jon time. He's falling in love with them already." The previous night at the nursery, she could have sworn the young man's face had lit with pride as he surveyed his children.
"He imagined he could land us a reality TV show." The girl's eyes teared up. "Isn't that ridiculous? I told him we'd need at least eight babies to do that."
"And even then, it wouldn't be in their best interest." Sam tried to cover her dismay. How could people exploit their children? When she had kids of her own, she planned to treasure and protect them with every ounce of her strength.
If I ever have kids. But that was neither here nor there. At the moment, her pediatric patients and the young mothers she nurtured came first with Sam. "Maybe he was kidding."
"I doubt it. He's so immature!" Candy blew out a long breath. "I believed we were in love and he'd marry me once I got pregnant, but he keeps putting it off."
"He'll come around." Samantha searched for a positive angle. "Your mom offered to pitch in, too."
"Yeah, but her idea of pitching in is babysitting once a month. She works awfully hard." The new grandma worked as a waitress, a job that took a heavy physical toll. "And she just hooked up with a new guy. Jerry's not into babies."
"I didn't know that." Sam had only met the grandmother briefly. "The service will be sending aides for the first few months."
"What about after that?" Candy waved her hands helplessly. "My dad was never around. I don't want my kids to grow up that way, too."
Samantha leaned forward. "You have to fight for what matters, Candy. I don't mean to push you into anything you aren't ready for, but if you give up too easily, you might regret it for the rest of your life."
When the stakes were high, you couldn't back down. As a teenager, Sam had nearly given up the most important battle of her life. Thank goodness, with her family's support, she'd rallied. Since then, she'd made it her mission to give others a boost at crucial moments in their lives.
Yet, for a moment, she wondered if she'd gone too far. The last thing Sam wanted was to impose her values and dreams on this young woman.
Suddenly a smile brightened Candy's face. "You know what the other girls call you? Fightin' Sam. I'm glad to have you in my corner."
Relieved, Samantha pushed her doubts aside. "That's where you'll find me, all right."
Someone tapped at the open door. Sam didn't have to turn to identify the visitor; she simply inhaled the dangerously thrilling scent of Mark Rayburn's aftershave lotion.
As she listened to Candy's greeting and Mark's deep-voiced answer, Sam kept her face averted so Mark couldn't see her telltale flushed cheeks. Despite her body's traitorous response, she had no intention of letting this man guess how attractive she found him.
In control again, she got to her feet. "Good morning, Mark."
Dark eyes swept her, sending prickles along Samantha's skin. Beneath his white coat, the powerful physique of a former football player loomed in her path. "Good to see you." As if they didn't run into each other practically every day.
Run into each other, and butt heads, and wage polite warfare. Although a fine doctor and an able administrator, Mark Rayburn stood for authority and the bottom line. Which, all too often, made him an obstacle in Samantha's path.
"I'll wait outside till you're done," she said. His thick eyebrows drew up. "Why wait? Don't you have patients to see?"
"Yes, but there's something I need to run by you."
There was no mistaking the wariness in his expression. "Of course."
With a farewell wave to Candy, Sam went out. She might have a tight schedule, but she never neglected the things that really mattered.
The incision was healing well, and the patient showed no sign of infection. Although Mark lingered for a few minutes after the exam to discuss anything troubling Candy, she insisted she was fine. He left her with a promise to send in the nurse to help her get out of bed. The sooner she started moving, the faster she'd recover.
Triplets. Caring for them would be a huge undertaking for any woman, and especially for this young lady. While he wished her every success, he hoped Samantha hadn't overly influenced Candy's decision to keep them.
In the corridor, he found Sam talking intently with Lori. Just his luck that the two women had become fast friends. So far, they hadn't ganged up on him, though.
As soon as she spotted him, Samantha excused herself. Without prompting, the nurse went in to check on Candy, while Mark pulled off the white coat he'd thrown over his suit.
"Mind climbing the stairs as we talk?" he asked. Although Samantha saw her regular patients in the adjacent office building, she also served as chief of the pediatrics department, which was located on the next floor up. At this early hour, no doubt she planned to make the rounds of her hospitalized patients on that floor.
"Suits me." Her long legs matched his stride easily. Only a few inches shorter than his six-foot height, she had golden hair that, today, swept in waves to her shoulders. He was glad she hadn't stuck it back with a clip or pulled it into a ponytail as she often did.
"What can I do for you?" Mark held the door to the staircase.
"Christmas." She breezed past.
That single word brought back his earlier troubled mood. His mother and father arguing Mom drinking some 90-proof concoction she claimed was eggnog stumbling and knocking over the tree, ripping the string of lights out of the socket
Mark searched for a happier memory when he and his sister, Bryn, were little. Piles of gifts from their physician father, a dinner table laden with treats in their Miami home. He preferred those images to the darker ones from his teen years, when it had fallen to him to dry Bryn's tears and sometimes his mother's, too.
"Yes?" He hoped Sam wasn't about to issue an invitation, because he planned to spend this holiday, like most, either working or playing golf. Probably both.
"I got a great idea last night. I'm going to stage an open-house fundraiser for the counseling clinic on Christmas Day."
As she mounted the stairs ahead of him, Mark admired the feminine sway of her body in tailored trousers and a cherry-colored blouse. Still, that didn't mean he had to endorse her latest scheme.
"Most people have plans for Christmas." Launching the grassroots counseling clinic might be her pet project, but she could hardly expect the rest of the world to abandon their traditions. "Why not hold it the weekend before?"
"Everybody throws parties then. Besides, did you know Christmas is one of the slowest news days of the year? We'll get much better media coverage." Her voice drifted back.
Mark stifled a groan. If there was anything Safe Harbor didn't lack, it was media coverage.
A few months earlier, a reporter had stirred up a storm by implying that the hospital had a special connection to California's Safe Haven law, which allowed mothers to surrender newborns safely without legal repercussions. As a result, young moms had showed up in record numbers, babes in their arms and news cameras dogging their every move.
The furor had died down at last, but not before Sa-mantha managed to turn the negative publicity into the realization of a dream. With the claim that she wanted to help prevent future relinquishments, she'd persuaded the hospital's owner, a corporation based in Kentucky, to turn over a large office suite for her to use as a counseling clinic for women and families. As if she didn't already have enough volunteer work to do with the teen support group she counseledbut Sam never seemed to run short of energy.
Since then, donations had enabled the Edward Serra Memorial Clinic to acquire furnishings, a computer system, a handful of volunteer peer counselors and the beginnings of an endowment. Not nearly enough to provide paid staff, however.
Hence this latest proposal, he presumed. While Mark supported the clinic's mission, he considered it peripheral to the hospital's central purpose. Plus, it was always risky to let Samantha speak to the press. She had a gift for stirring up controversy.
"We've discussed this before," he reminded her as they reached the fourth floor landing. "To put the clinic on a solid financial footing, you can't rely on nickel-and-dime contributions. You need major corporate sponsors."
"Mark!" She turned so abruptly he nearly ran into her. "How can I attract sponsors without publicity?"
He'd always appreciated her slim, athletic figure, but rarely had been this close. When she tossed back her blond mane, Mark had to drag his brain back to their conversation.
"Through working quietly behind the scenes. Cultivating contacts. Making presentations." That was how the business world operated.
Sam remained planted one step above him. Unless Mark bodily shifted her aside, he was trapped. And he wasn't eager to put his hands on her body. Actually, he was, but he shouldn't be.