Irene Hannon explores the gift of love in these holiday stories
One Special Christmas
It started with her daughter's tummy aches. But Dr. Eric Carlson has more than medicine to offer Kate Nolan. First, he finds a babysitter for the single mom's little girl. Next, he'll mend Kate's tattered heart…just in time for Christmas.
Home for the Holidays
Sparks fly every time Nick Sinclair encounters Laura Taylor, yet the skittish widow holds Nick at arm's length. Her past has shaken her trust in God and in love. But a leap of faith could win her a Christmas treasurea lifetime of Nick's devotion.
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"Mrs. Nolan, the doctor will see Sarah now."
Kate glanced up from the book she was reading to her daughter and smiled. "All right. Thanks." She slung her purse over her shoulder and stood, reaching down to take Sarah's hand. "Come on, honey. It's time to go in."
"Do I have to?"
Kate gazed down into the large, dark eyesa mirror image of her ownand with an apologetic glance at the nurse, sat back down. She pulled Sarah close and spoke gently. "You don't want to have those nasty tummyaches anymore, do you, honey? The doctor can help make them go away. And I'll stay with you the whole time. I promise."
Sarah's eyes welled with tears and she sniffed. "I don't like doctors."
"You used to like Dr. Davis, remember? And this doctor is a friend of his. So I'm sure you'll like him, too."
"He's not going to give me a shot, is he?"
"I don't think so. Not today." Sarah's lower lip quivered. "Promise you'll stay with me? " she pleaded tremulously. "Of course I will, honey."
She gave her daughter a quick, reassuring hug and stood again, her heart contracting as Sarah's small, trusting hand reached for hers. She couldn't even bear the thought that something serious might be wrong with her. Sarah was the only thing that gave her life any meaning or joy. Though she'd tried not to worry during the past week as she'd waited for this appointment, she'd met with little success. Nights were the worst. She kept waking up in a cold sweat as increasingly frightening scenarios played themselves out in her dreams. Sarah was all she had now, and she would do anythinganythingto keep her well and safe and happy.
She tightened her grip encouragingly and smiled down at her daughter, trying futilely to control the almost painful thumping of her heart as they followed the nurse inside. Everything would turn out fine, she told herself resolutely. It had to. Except she knew from experience that that was a lie. Everything didn't have to turn out fine. There were lots of times when it didn't no matter how hard you wished for it or wanted it or prayed for it.
The nurse stopped at the door of an examining room and ushered them inside.
"The doctor will be with you in just a few minutes," she promised.
"Shall I undress Sarah?" Kate asked.
The woman glanced at Sarah's shorts and crop top, noted how tenaciously the little girl clung to her mother, and smiled as she shook her head. "I don't think so. The doctor should be able to check everything out just like that. If not, he'll let you know."
Kate watched the woman leave, then forced her lips into what she hoped was a cheery smile. "Shall we finish our story?" She held up the book she'd brought with her from the waiting room.
Sarah nodded, and as Kate sat down the youngster climbed onto her lap. Though her daughter quickly became engrossed in the story, Kate couldn't so easily forget where they were. Or why. Even when Sarah got the sniffles she worried excessively, and this mysterious ache in her daughter's stomach was making Kate's own stomach clench painfully.
When a brief knock interrupted her reading a few minutes later, she jerked involuntarily, then glanced up with a troubled gaze as the door swung open.
Eric stopped abruptly on the threshold as he stared at the woman whose face had been indelibly etched into his mind on that cold, tragic evening five years before. It was a night memorable in many waysnone of them pleasant. It had begun with the terrible accident, and had ended with his wife's announcement that she wanted a divorce. For years he'd tried to put the events of that dismal evening behind him. But the one thing he'd never been able to forget was this woman's stunning face and the desperate love he'd seen reflected in her expressive eyes.
Her face was still stunning, he noted. But her beauty was tempered now with worry and fatigue, the fine lines at the corners of her eyes and the dark smudges beneath them giving mute testimony to a life filled with unrelenting strain. Nor had her eyes lost their expressiveness except that now they reflected disillusion and sadness instead of the love he remembered from that fateful night. Whatever burden she had carried for the past five years had clearly taken a tremendous toll on her, he concluded. She looked fragile. And achingly vulnerable. And very much alone. She seemed like a woman desperately in need of a shoulder to cry on or just a comforting hand to hold, he reflected, surprisedand disconcertedby the unexpected surge of protectiveness that coursed through him.
Kate returned the doctor's stare, held by his compelling eyes. His gaze wasn't invasive or unfriendlymore like unsettling. As if he knew something she didn't. Which was odd. They'd never met before, had they? she wondered, frowning slightly. Yet there was something familiar about him. But surely she would remember hair the color of sun-ripened wheat and eyes so intensely blue. Perhaps he just reminded her of someone from her past.
Eric realized that she didn't recognize him. Which wasn't surprising, in light of their traumatic "meeting" if it could even be called that. And maybe it was just as well, considering his odd reaction on seeing her again. She drew him in a strangely powerful, inexplicable way; and that scared him. His divorce from Cindy four and half years before had taught him very clearly that marriage and medicine didn't mix. Since then he'd steered clear of serious relationships. It was a rule he'd never broken. And he wasn't going to start nowwith any woman. So, with an effort, he put his professional smile in place and held out his hand.
"Mrs. Nolan? I'm Eric Carlson."
Kate found her fingers engulfed in a firm grip that somehow felt both capable and caring. "Hello, Doctor."
"And this must be Sarah." He squatted down beside the wary little girl, who was watching him solemnly, her eyes wide, as she clung to her mother. "Hello, Sarah. I'm Dr. Eric." When she didn't respond, he tried again. "You know, I have something in my office you might like to see when we're all finished. A big tank full of beautiful fish. What's your favorite color?"
"Well, I have a pink fish that has a bright blue tail. Would you like to see it later?"
Sarah studied him silently for a moment. "Are you going to give me a shot?"
Eric chuckled and glanced at Kate. "Nothing like cutting to the chase, is there?" Then he transferred his attention back to Sarah and shook his head. "Nope. No shots today. I promise. So how about letting me look in your ears and peek at your tonsils? And I'll let you listen to my heart if you let me listen to yours."
Sarah tipped her head and studied him for a moment before loosening her grip on Kate. "Okay."
"That's a girl." Eric reached over and picked her up, then settled her on the end of the table. From that point on, the exam proceeded smoothly. Eric even managed to elicit a giggle or two.
Kate watched in amazement, and her respect for Eric grew exponentially from minute to minute. He had a knack for putting children at ease, for making an exam fun, and she suspected that even on those occasions when he did have to give shots, he drew little protest from his patients. He had certainly befriended Sarah, Kate conceded. Her usually shy, reserved little girl was completely relaxed.
As he worked, Eric casually asked Kate a few astute, specific questions, never shifting his focus from Sarah.
When he finished, he straightened and smiled down at his patient. "Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
Sarah shook her head. "It didn't hurt at all. I like you. He's nice, isn't he, Mommy?" she declared, looking over at Kate.
Kate cast an admiring glance at Eric. "Yes, honey, he sure is."
Eric felt his neck grow red at Kate's praise. Which was both odd and extremely unsettling. He never lost his cool with patientsor their mommies. To buy himself a moment to regain his composure, he lifted Sarah to the floor, then bent down to retrieve a wayward cotton ball.
Kate didn't know exactly what triggered the sudden flash of memory. Maybe it was Eric's motion of leaning so close to her, or the position of his body in conjunction with hers, or the way the overhead lighting suddenly drew out the burnished gold in his hair. But abruptly and with startling clarity she recalled another time, five years before, when this man had leaned over in exactly the same way as he'd worked on her critically injured husband in an icy wrecked car.
Her sudden gasp of recognition made Eric quickly straighten, and as their gazes met he realized that the odd link they shared was no longer a mystery to her. Her face had gone a shade paler, and he noted the sudden trembling of her fingers as her hand went to her throat.
Eric forced his gaze from hers and smiled at Sarah. "Are you ready to see that pink fish now?"
Oblivious to the sudden undertones in the room, the little girl nodded eagerly and turned to Kate. "It's all right, isn't it, Mommy?"
Somehow Kate found her voice. "Yes."
Eric took Sarah's hand and looked over at Kate discerningly. "I'll be back in a moment. Will you be okay?"
She nodded mutely, still trying to process the bizarre coincidence of today's encounter. When her own pediatrician had retired a few weeks ago, she'd simply selected the most conveniently located replacement from the list he'd provided. Eric Carlsonthe man who'd saved Jack's life.
Kate had always meant to find out the name of the doctor who had stopped that night to help, intending to write him a heartfelt letter of thanks. But as the months had gone by she'd been so overwhelmed by all the other demands in her life that she had never followed through. And especially in light of the outcome, which had left her in a deep depression for almost a year. It had been all she could do after that, simply to cope. There were days even now when that was all she didcope. But that was no excuse. This man deserved better from her, and the guilt had nagged at her for years.
Eric slipped back into the room then and shut the door before taking a seat across from Kate.
"I left Sarah in my office with one of my assistants. She'll keep her occupied until we're finished."
"You were the doctor at the accident, weren't you?" Kate said without preamble.
Eric seemed momentarily taken aback by her abrupt words, then he slowly nodded. "Yes. I recognized you the minute I came in the door."
"I never thanked you. I meant to."
He shrugged. "No thanks were necessary. I'm a doctor. That's my job."
She shook her head vehemently. "No. You didn't even have to stop, especially considering the weather. I don't remember much about that night. I had a slight concussion, and everything has always been a blur. But they told me you saved Jack's life. I always intended to find out your name and let you know I appreciated what you did."
He made a dismissive gesture. "I just opened an airway. It was enough to give him a fighting chance until he got to the hospital." He glanced briefly at her left hand, noted the ring, then proceeded carefully. "Your husband seemed to be badly hurt, Mrs. Nolan."
She swallowed and gave a brief nod of confirmation. "Yes. Two vertebrae in his neck were crushed and he had severe head injuries. At first they weren't sure if he'd even make it through the night. He was in a coma and I just lived hour by hour. But he held on somehow. And with every day that passed I grew more hopeful, despite the fact that the doctors didn't offer much encouragement. They said even if he came out of the coma, he would be paralyzed. That he'd never be the way he was before. But I was sure they were wrong. I had great faith in those days." There was an unmistakable trace of bitterness in her voice, but it was replaced by bleakness when she continued. "We never had a chance to find out, though. He died seven months later without ever regaining consciousness."
It was what Eric had feared. The desolate look in Kate's eyes, the slump of her shoulders, the catch in her voice, made his heart ache. "I'm sorry," he said helplessly, wishing he could take away her pain, offer some words of comfort. But he'd been through this before with other survivors, and he knew words did little to ease the burden of grief or the devastating sense of emptiness and loss that accompanied the death of a loved one. There was no way to make the absolute finality of that parting any less painful.
She blinked rapidly, and he saw the sheen of tears in her eyes. "Thank you. You'd think after four years I'd be able to handle it better than this, but well, Jack and Sarah were my whole world. Sarah was only six weeks old when it happened, and we had so many plans, so much to look forward to ." Her voice trailed off and she sniffed, struggling for composure. At last she drew a shaky breath, and when she spoke her voice was choked and barely audible. "Everyone said I'd get over it. That life would go on and in time I'd feel back to normal. But you know, I don't think you ever get over it. You just get on with it."
Eric felt his throat tighten at the abject misery in Kate's eyes. "It takes a lot of courage just to do that," he told her gently, his own voice uneven.
She gave him a sad smile and shook her head. "It's kind of you to say that, Doctor. But it doesn't take courage to simply do what you have to do. Sarah needs me. Period. And I love her with all my heart. That's why these mysterious stomach pains have me so worried."
Eric couldn't change the tragedy that had brought Kate more than her share of heartache, but at least he could set her mind at ease about Sarah.
"Well, I don't think you need to worry, Mrs. Nolan. I can't find a thing wrong. She seems like a very healthy little girl."
"Then what's the problem?"
He toyed with his pencil for a moment, his face pensive. "Has there been any sort of trauma in her life recently?"
Kate nodded slowly as fresh tears sprang to her eyes. "Yes. My my mother died very suddenly a month ago.
She and Sarah were very close. We all were, actually. Sort of like The Three Musketeers."