After his divorce, Seth promised himself he'd put his daughter first. Adding a relationship to his overscheduled life would be crazy. So he agrees with Meaganbetween hour-long kissesthat this chemistry, this closeness between them, can't go anywhere. But a medical crisis just might make them realize what matters most .
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Dressed in a long-sleeved purple T-shirt and comfortable black yoga pants, Meagan Baker reclined in a padded chaise lounge. She had a white cashmere shawl draped over her shoulders, cold soda by her hand, good book in her lap. The chair was one of several arranged in a companionable grouping on the rock patio surrounding her smallish, in-ground pool, which sparkled in the afternoon sun. A spreading oak tree canopied with early spring leaves shaded her chair. Birds played among the branches, singing cheerily. A pleasant, floral-fragrant breeze brushed her cheeks and rustled the new leaves above her, harmonizing sweetly with the birdsongs.
Glumly, she studied her feet clad in flirty purple ballet flats. Most people would think she was crazy for wishing she were in an operating room in scrubs, paper gown, cap and mask, and arch-supporting shoes.
"Can I get you anything else, sweetie?"
She forced a smile as she looked up at her mother, who hovered nearby. "I'm fine, thanks. You should go home and take care of Meemaw."
"You're sure?" Her mom, LaDonna Baker, looked torn between caring for her convalescing daughter and returning home to tend to her own ailing mother, who lived with her. "I could warm a pot of soup before I go."
"I can warm my own soup. You've filled my fridge and freezer with meals I can pop into the microwave. I won't go hungry." Meagan hated the feeling that she was adding to her mother's already sizeable load of responsibilities. As the eldest of three children and a surgeon by trade, Meagan was much more accustomed to being a caretaker than having one.
Only a couple of days out of the hospital after undergoing emergency surgery, she still felt annoyingly weak and achy. She had pain pills if she needed them, but she limited herself to over-the-counter meds as much as possible. Having declined an invitation to recuperate at her mother's house, Meagan preferred to keep her head clear. She lived alone, but she had promised her concerned family she would keep a cell phone always close at hand. Her mother and two physician siblings all lived within a ten-minute drive, so she had no fears about being on her own.
"Go home, Mom," she repeated gently. "You've been here most of the day. I know you have things to do at home."
Torn by her responsibilities, her mother finally, reluctantly left, though she made Meagan promise to call if she needed anything. Anything at all.
Alone at last, Meagan rested her head against the back of her chair and closed her eyes. She hadn't wanted to display her weakness in front of her worried mother, but now she could relax and moan, unheard by anyone but herself.
She remembered patients complaining they felt as though they'd been hit by a truck; she now knew exactly what they meant. Every inch of her seemed to ache or throb, not just the healing incision in her abdomen. She'd always tried to be sympathetic to her patients' discomfort, but she thought she'd be even more so now that she'd actually experienced post-surgical pain, herself.
As much as she appreciated her mother's loving care, it felt good to be alone for a while and outside in the fresh air. Ever since she'd been hospitalized six days ago for emergency surgery to repair an ovarian torsion, she'd been pent up and poked at and hovered over and treated like a well, like a patient. She had quickly realized that she much preferred being the doctor.
She rested a hand lightly on the incision site, from force of habit, feeling for excessive heat or swelling. Despite her discomfort, she was healing just fine. She wished fleetingly that the surgery could have been performed laparoscopi-cally, which would have resulted in a much shorter recovery period, but her condition had been too severe. Her left ovary had been twisted to the point of necrosis, and the surgeon had been unable to salvage it.
She might have saved the ovary if she'd caught the condition earlier, Meagan thought regretfully. She had mistaken the symptomatic pain for her usual menstrual cramping, popping OTC pain relievers and staying too busy taking care of other people to pay attention to her own well-beinga common failing among physicians. Only when she'd been incapacitated by sudden, severe pain, nausea and fever had she sought emergency care. She'd been rushed into an O.R. by a surgeon she worked with and trusted implicitly. If anyone could have salvaged the ovary, it would have been Meilin Liu, but no such luck.
It still surprised her how shaken she had been by the crisis. Meagan had spent the past ten years in the medical field, but seeing it from a hospital bed had been a completely different experience. She had been fortunate not to have had any health crises during her first thirty-two years, having been hospitalized only once for a tonsillectomy when she was nine. She had decided then that she wanted to be a doctor, but she had been so young she hardly remembered the hospital experience itself.
This had been different. She'd been forced during the past week to face both her mortality and her fertility, and she had been taken aback by her reactions.
Meilin had assured her the loss of an ovary would not prevent her from conceiving a child. But Meagan was thirty-two and not even dating anyone in particular. She had maybe another decade, more or less, to have a child should she decide to do so.
As for mortalityshe had always thought there would be plenty of time for the things she had neglected in her single-minded pursuit of her career. Hobbies. Travel. Marriage. Children. Now she was suddenly aware of how quickly time had passed. Her twenties had sped by in a blur of medical school studying, long, sleepless residency hours, then establishing her practice as a surgeon in a Little Rock, Arkansas teaching hospital. The people she loved were growing older. Her mother was nearing sixty, her grandmother was in her eighties. Her younger brother had just turned thirty and their little sister wasn't far behind.
She remembered as a child hearing older people talk about how quickly time flew. Back then she hadn't understood; now she identified all too well with that sentiment.
"Oof!" Her wistful musings ended abruptly when a solid, wiggling weight landed directly on her stomach, only inches from her still-healing incision.
Warm breath bathed her face while an eager pink tongue tried to do the same. Her hands were filled with a squirming, panting yellow puppya good-sized one at that, with paws as big as her fists and a smiling, wet-nosed face. The dog wasn't still long enough for her to read the red metal tag dangling from his collar. Every time one of his big feet landed on her abdomen, she groaned.
A girl with a fresh, freckled face almost hidden behind round glasses and an unruly mop of brown curls rushed to rescue Meagan from the friendly assault. She grabbed the pup and wrestled him into a firm clench in her skinny arms. "Be still, Waldo. I'm so sorry, ma'am. I hope he didn't scare you. He's really friendly."
Apparently, Meagan's mom had accidentally left the backyard gate open when she left. Pressing one hand to her throbbing scar and wiping her damp cheek with the other, Meagan managed to smile at the girl. "He is definitely friendly. You called him Waldo?"
The girl nodded shyly. "My dad named him that because we're always asking where's Waldo?"
Meagan laughed, which only made her incision hurt worse. "Cute. You'd better keep him on a leash, though. I'd hate for him to run out in the street and get hit."
"He got away from me when I was trying to untangle his leash." Juggling the dog, the girl managed to snap a sturdy leather leash onto his collar. Only then did she set him down, clinging to the strap with both hands when he immediately tried to dash away from her. He almost tugged her off her feet before she braced herself. "Be still, Waldo. We're taking him to obedience classes."
Meagan eyed the bounding pup skeptically. "Umhow's that going?"
"We just signed him up for six classes. They start a week from Saturday."
The dog pounced on the only errant dandelion sprouting from Meagan's immaculate backyard and enthusiastically ripped the puff from the top, shaking his head, play-growling and scattering seeds everywhere. Meagan thought the obedience class teacher would have quite a challenge with this particular student.
"I'm Alice Llewellyn," the girl volunteered, still clinging to the leash. "I live in the red brick house on the other side of the street, two houses down."
Though she had never met the inhabitants, Meagan knew the house. She nodded. "Hi, Alice. I'm Meagan Baker."
"We just moved here a couple of weeks ago. I haven't met many of the neighbors yet."
Meagan had lived in this upscale, young-professionals neighborhood for almost two years and hadn't met many of her neighbors either. It wasn't that she was unfriendly, she assured herself. She simply wasn't home much. Her working hours started very early, so she rarely saw any neighbors when headed for the hospital. She usually returned home tired and hungry, drove straight into the garage and put the door down behind her, then walked directly into her kitchen. Because of her busy schedule, she paid someone to keep up her lawn and pool. She did her walking and weight training at the hospital gym. And while she enjoyed swimming laps in her solar-heated pool, she usually did so after dark within the privacy of her tall redwood fencethe gate of which was now swinging open.
"It's very nice to meet you, Alice. Welcome to the neighborhood."
The dandelion conquered and demolished, Waldo moved on to sniff the base of an azalea bush covered in pink blooms. Fortunately Alice tugged him away from it before he could destroy that, too.
"When we moved here, I hoped there would be some other kids my age in one of the houses close to ours," Alice confided. "My best friends from school live in other parts of town, so someone has to drive me to their houses. We're on spring break from school, but there aren't any other teenagers to hang out with on this street. A few little kids, but no one my age. I turned thirteen last week."
Alice was quite obviously proud to call herself a teenager now, Meagan thought with a smothered smile. "Happy belated birthday."
Alice grinned, showing a quick flash of braces. "Thanks. Waldo was my birthday present. But now my dad says he wishes he'd bought me something less destructive. Like a chainsaw."
Alice's dad seemed to have quite the sense of humor. Because the girl seemed lonely, Meagan motioned toward another outdoor chair. "Would you like to have a seat? I can get you a soda or some lemonade."
"No, thank you, my nanum, the housekeeper is probably wondering where I am."
Meagan deliberately gave no indication that she'd noticed the young teen's quick substitute of the word housekeeper for nanny. Teenagers, of course, would never admit to having or needing a nanny.
"I like your pool," Alice added with a glance around the backyard. "Dad says maybe we'll get one when he gets time to think about it. He's a lawyer and he's been real busy at work lately. There was a pool at the condo where he used to live, but he decided he needed a real house now that I live with him and this one didn't come with a pool. It has room for one in the backyard, though, so he said he'll think about it because I love to swim."
Charmed by the artless chatter, even though she was bemused by how much personal information the girl had crammed into a few sentences, Meagan motioned toward her small, but functional pool. "You'd be welcome to swim in mine during your spring break. I'm home every day for the next few weeks to recover from a surgical procedure, and I'd enjoy the company if it's okay with your dad and your, um, housekeeper. The pool is heated, so you'd be warm enough as long as you bring a cover-up for when you get out of the water. As warm as it has been this month, it's still a little too cool to stand around in a wet bathing suit."
Alice's face lit up with her smile, making Meagan realize the girl was actually quite pretty beneath the glasses and wild hair. "That would be so cool. I really love to swim. I'll ask my dad. I'm sure he'll say it's okay. Thanks, Miss Baker."
"You can just call me Meagan." She'd never been one to insist on being called "doctor," like some of her more pretentious colleagues.
"Thanks, Meagan. I'll see you later, okay? Come on, Waldo, let's go home."
"Would you mind closing the gate behind you?"
"Sure. See you later."
Meagan watched in amusement as Alice tugged at the leash to get the rambunctious pup headed in the right direction, then was nearly pulled off her feet when the dog dashed away. Obedience classes were definitely going to be interesting with Waldo in them.
"So then Waldo took a big jump right into the pool. Water sprayed everywhere and he yelped like he was surprised he got wet. Then he started swimming and splashing and shaking his ears and he had the best time. Me and Meagan"
"Meagan and I."
Setting a plate on the dining room table for Friday evening's dinner, Alice continued with barely a pause for her father's correction. "Meagan and I were laughing so hard at him, and that just made him act sillier. She said she didn't mind letting him into her pool because she has someone who cleans it for her. Waldo loves going swimming, Dad. We really should get a pool."
"If we get a pool," Seth Llewellyn replied firmly, laying napkins beside the two place settings on their table, "it will be for our use, not for Waldo's."
Alice gave him an innocent look. "Of course. But we can let Waldo swim with us, too, can't we?"
"We'll see how he does in obedience classes."
"He'll ace them, you'll see," Alice said confidently. "He's really very intelligent."
Seth was still reserving judgment on that call.
At least they could eat in peace. The rowdy dog was safe in the fenced backyard. He had a cozy, overpriced dog house to keep him warm and dry, and more toys than any one dog should own. Within the course of the past ten days, Waldo had gone from shelter pup to pampered pet and he was adjusting quite happily to the transition.