Liam kept up the fiction of a footloose bachelor only for Anne's sake. The truth was he adored his wife and no longer wanted to keep their marriage under wraps. Could he convince the wedding-wary doctor-in-training to write them a private prescription…for a lifetime of love and happiness?
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"Are you sure you had the time to join us for dinner this evening, Anne? I hope we didn't disrupt your study plans."
"I can take off a couple hours for dinner, Mother. I can't study every minute of every day."
Though it felt sometimes as though that was exactly what she did, Anne Easton thought as she sliced into the roasted chicken her mother had served for this Friday evening family meal. Even when she tried to rebel and spend an afternoon resting or reading or watching TV, guilt and anxiety soon had her back at her books, working even harder than usual to make up for the lost time. Just as she would do tonight after returning to her apartment from this evening with her family.
"You've lost weight." Her mother, Deloris Easton, a retired family court judge, studied her intently from across the table. "And you look tired. Are you getting enough sleep?"
Anne couldn't help but laugh a little at that. "No. But don't worry, I'm getting by."
Her father, Dr. Henry Easton, Jr., a prominent and still-practicing Little Rock, Arkansas, neurosurgeon, listened to the exchange from the head of the formal dining room table. His thin silver hair gleamed in the light from the crystal chandelier overhead. Behind the lenses of his silver-framed glasses, his dark blue eyes focused piercingly on his only daughter. "It's all well and good to join the family for dinner occasionally. We enjoy spending the time with you. But don't let yourself get behind. You know what I always say…"
"Yes, Dad. If I fall behind, I'll never catch up," she recited, stabbing a glazed carrot with a bit more force than necessary.
"Back when I was in medical school, I was lucky to have a sandwich and a three-hour nap most days." Seated at the other end of the table, Dr. Henry Easton, Sr., retired thoracic surgeon, dabbed at his silver mustache with the corner of a linen napkin.
Anne's older brother, Stephen, had once suggested that Granddad had grown the mustache when the last of his hair had fallen out years earlier, just to prove he could still grow hair if he wanted to. Both Anne and Stephen had inherited their mother's blond hair and light blue eyes rather than the sandy brown hair and darker blue eyes from their father's side of the family.
Stephen, a third-year surgical resident and almost five years Anne's elder at twenty-nine, exaggerated a shudder. "Remember when I had the flu the second semester of my first year of med school? It was all I could do not to fall behind, even though I was feverish and aching and coughing my lungs up."
Anne focused on her plate, though her rapidly tightening throat made it increasingly difficult to swallow.
"I never missed a day of school due to illness," Granddad boasted. "Not a day of work, either."
Since she doubted he'd never been sick a day in his life, Anne wondered how many germs he had shared with associates and patients. Wisely, she kept that irreverent question to herself.
"You're making time to study for Step 1?" her father asked, referring to the first part of the medical licensing exam. "I know it's only early February, but June will be here before you know it. You'll want to be ready."
"Yes, Dad." She'd actually have three chances to pass the exam, but she knew her family would be appalled if she didn't sail through on the first attempt. Failure was not an option for an Easton, not even the type that would only set her back a few weeks on her long-term schedule. "I've already started going through the prep books. Whenever I'm not studying for a class, I work on the sample Step 1 questions."
"Not much time left for a social life, huh?" her brother teased.
Neither of the older men looked amused by the quip.
"She'll have plenty of time for a social life after she finishes her career training," their dad said firmly.
Their grandfather nodded agreement. "Just be glad you got rid of that McCright boy in college. Can you imagine how much harder this would all be if you had to stayed involved with him?"
"If she'd gotten into medical school at all," her dad muttered.
That McCright boy. It was the way they always referred to Liam, even though he was almost seven years older than Anne. He'd done a hitch in the army before enrolling in the university where they'd met.
They still blamed him for the B she had received in chemistry her freshman year. For an Easton, a B might as well have been an F. Had she not been involved with that McCright boy, she would have been able to focus on her schoolwork, they had proclaimed.
Anne took a sip of her iced tea, pleased her hand was steady as she lifted the glass to her lips. It was her right hand, and a pretty little diamond and sapphire ring glittered on her finger. She'd worn it home from her year studying abroad after her college graduation, telling everyone she'd bought it as a souvenir in London. She never took it off.
"I saw him on TV the other night when I was flipping channels to find a good movie to watch." Her mother shook her ash-blond head in disapproval. "He was filming in another one of those dangerous, unstable places he's always going to. That long, floppy hair looked like it hadn't been trimmed in months, and he had at least a week's worth of stubble on his face. He looked like a pirate. I don't know how any woman could handle being involved with such a restless adventurer. I believe he's one of those adrenaline addicts I've read about. Never really happy unless he's risking life and limb somewhere."
Reckless, impulsive, footloose. Terms her family had used to describe Liam when she'd dated him that year. He had been all of those things, of course, and more. Had it been despite those traits or because of them that she had fallen so desperately in love with him?
Her dad abruptly changed the subject, as he always did whenever her college romance came up. "How's your car performing, Anne? Is it still giving you problems? Don't know why you won't let me buy you a newer one."
"I like my car, Dad. And it's running fine since you had your mechanic work on it for me. I don't need you to buy me a new one." It was the same car he'd given her for a high school graduation present six and a half years earlier. She had always intended to buy her next car for herself. She had certainly inherited her share of the Easton pride.
"Humph." He looked both annoyed and pleased by her refusal. "You always have been stubborn about letting me help you."
She smiled at him. "You raised me to be independent and self-sufficient, remember?"
His eyes softened. "So I did. What was I thinking?"
"Isn't this nice? I'm so glad we could all be here this evening. It's the first time we've all been together since Christmas."
"Not quite all of us, Mother." Stephen glanced pointedly at the empty chair beside him.
"Oh, I know, and I wish Danielle could have been here, too. Tell her we missed her, will you?"
Danielle Carpenter, another surgical resident, was on call that evening and couldn't leave the hospital. She and Stephen had been engaged for a few months, though they were in no hurry to set a wedding date. They seemed quite content for now to live together in their downtown Little Rock loft and focus all their attention on their jobs. Her family approved heartily of Stephen's choice for a mate. They considered the ambitious, brilliant and attractive Danielle a fine addition to their overachieving clan.
Both Stephen and Danielle had admitted they weren't sure they wanted children, though they weren't ruling out having one child in the future. Of course, they would be extremely busy in their surgical careers, but that was what nannies were for, right?
Having been cared for by several nannies during her own childhood as the daughter of career-obsessed parents, Anne knew it was possible to hire daily child care and still remain active and involved in a child's life. Her mother and dad had certainly kept a close eye on her. Still did, for that matter.
She had no doubt Stephen and Danielle would be just as successful at parenting as they were at everything else.
Anne prepared to leave not long after finishing her dessert. As much as she loved her family, she was ready to get back to her own apartment. She'd thought an evening break would do her good, but she was more stressed now than she'd been when she'd arrived. Her family didn't try to detain her; all she had to do was mention that she needed to study and they practically shoved her out the door.
Leaving the men in the den to discuss Stephen's chances of becoming chief surgical resident—something Anne had no doubt he would achieve—her mother offered to walk her to the door. Anne waited patiently while her mother reached for her aluminum cane, which she used to steady herself as she moved carefully through the large house.
Though only fifty-nine, Deloris Easton had suffered a massive stroke nineteen months earlier. It had happened only a month before Anne started medical school, only a few days after she had returned from abroad. Anne had brought home a secret she hadn't been able to share with her family while her mother lay near death for several days, nor during the long, still ongoing period of recuperation. Her mother had made great strides since her stroke, but it still broke Anne's heart at times to see the formerly robust and fiercely independent woman looking so frail and vulnerable.
"There's something I want to give you before you go, Anne. I found it when I was cleaning out my jewelry armoire earlier, and I thought you'd like to have it. It belonged to my mother." Her voice was only a little slurred, though it had taken a great deal of effort and therapy to achieve that success. Resting one hand lightly on the cane handle, she reached with the other into the pocket of the melon-colored blazer she wore with a matching shell and camel slacks. From that blazer pocket, she withdrew a small, flat jewelry box.
Anne opened the box curiously. She studied the necklace inside with a lump in her throat. Small baguette diamonds surrounded a larger, round-cut diamond that caught the light from the foyer chandelier and reflected it cheerfully back at her. The pendant hung from a deceptively delicate-looking gold chain. "It's lovely, Mother. I think I remember Grandma Henderson wearing this."
"It was one of her favorite pieces. My brother gave it to her not long before he died in Vietnam. I know you'll treasure it."
"Of course I will." Almost unbearably touched, Anne reached up to fasten the chain around her neck. She'd worn her long hair pinned up, so it didn't get in the way as she secured the clasp. The pendant nestled into the neckline of the crisp blue shirt she'd worn with black pants for this family dinner. "Thank you."
"It looks lovely on you." Her mother sighed lightly. "I still miss her, you know. Every day."
"I know you do." Anne's heart clenched at the memory of how close she had come to losing her own mother. "Thank you again for the necklace. I'll take very good care of it."
"I know what a difficult time you're having now. I remember from Stephen's experience that the second semester of the second year is one of the most challenging parts of medical school. Several of his friends suffered severe burnout during that time, and I suspect Stephen was more stressed than he allowed us to see. I just want you to know your father and I are so very proud of you."
Anne was immeasurably affected by her mother's words. Yet, why did she now feel even more pressured than she had before? "Thanks, Mother. I'll try to live up to your expectations."
Her mother laughed and reached up to kiss her cheek. "We'll always be proud of you, no matter what."
Anne left without responding to that sentiment. As sweet and as heartfelt as it had been, she was fully aware she could disappoint her parents all too easily.
Anxious to get back to her studies, she parked her aging compact in front of her West Little Rock apartment and hurried up the stairs. Her small, two-bedroom apartment was on the second floor of the two-story, outward-opening building. She was already thinking about what subject she would study first when she paused in front of the door to insert her key in the lock. She wondered how much her study group had accomplished that evening. Maybe she should have met with them instead of taking the night off to dine with her family.
If she fell behind, she would never catch up.
Liam had always accused her of requiring too much of herself, on top of the expectations of her family. He'd told her she couldn't hope to be perfect, that she didn't have to live up to anyone's expectations but her own—which were set much too high for an ordinary mortal. He'd never quite understood what it was like to be an Easton.
Less than half an hour after arriving at her apartment, she'd let down her hair and changed into comfortable clothes—a T-shirt and yoga pants with fuzzy socks. She booted up her computer in preparation of a few hours of studying before she crashed for the night. It was only 9:00 p.m., so she figured she had three or four solid study hours before her brain shut down.
She had just plopped down in her chair to get started when her doorbell rang.
She wasn't expecting visitors that evening, and certainly not at that hour. Approaching the door warily, she ran through a mental list of possibilities. Maybe it was Haley from her study group, bringing by some notes or study materials, though Haley usually called before dropping in. Could be one of her neighbors, though she didn't know any of them very well, since she was rarely home and usually locked in with her books when she was there. Her brother, maybe? Had she left something behind at her parents' house?
When she looked through the peephole in the door and saw the face on the other side, she realized she never would have guessed correctly. It actually took her a moment to recognize him.
Disengaging the locks, she threw open the door. "Liam!"
"What on earth are you doing here?" Had she somehow conjured him with her earlier thoughts of him?
Perfectly fitting the description, "tall, dark and handsome," Liam gave her the kind of wickedly charming grin that could make an impressionable young woman do all kinds of crazy and irresponsible things.