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Nurse Stacy Layne almost didn't hear the anesthesiologist's question. She disliked chitchat in the operating room, especially when she was assisting Dr. Cole Rattigan, head of the Safe Harbor Medical Center men's fertility program. His intense concentration and focused skill transformed microsurgery into an event more exciting than any Olympic competition.
Above the white mask, Cole's clear brown eyes fixed on the surgical microscope. Yet she got the sense he was seeing not only the incision but the whole patient, a man desperately hoping to reverse a vasectomy so he and his wife could have the children they longed for.
"Isn't today your birthday, Stacy?" anesthesiologist Rod Vintner repeated, while keeping one eye on the computer that monitored the patient's vital signs.
"Yes," she said tersely, staying alert for Dr. Ratti-gan's next move. It was her job, and her privilege, to provide him with whatever instrument he might require almost before he asked for it, so he didn't break concentration. To forestall further inquiries, she added, "I'm twenty-eight."
"Congratulations, Stacy," Dr. Rattigan said.
"Thanks." She beamed.
"Doing anything to celebrate?" Rod asked.
"I'll see," she returned noncommittally. Earlier, one of the nurses had invited a group to join him at a club tonight, but Stacy wasn't sure she felt like it. Her birthday didn't seem important, anyway, compared to the news she was anticipating. Possibly the most important news of her life.
"The egg bank should be sending flowers and chocolates." Amazingly, those words came from Cole Rat-tigan. Since joining the staff eight months earlier, the surgeon had maintained a pleasant but impersonal tone with her and, as far as she could tell, with everyone else. "I hear you're one of their first donors. How's that going?"
She gave a start, her hand nearly bumping the instrument tray. He 'd noticed? Incredible.
"My couple " She stopped to swallow, her throat suddenly dry. "The Barkers should be in Dr. Franco's office right now, waiting to find out if they're pregnant."
"Isn't that a first for the program?" Cole inquired.
"Yes. But we aren't sure yet."
Oh, please, please, please let Una be pregnant.
It was hard to explain Stacy's intense drive to bring babies into the world, even though they would belong to a couple she'd met only a few months ago. During Stacy's five years at Safe Harbor, she'd loved being part of the excitement as the hospital launched its programs for women's and men's fertility. At first, she'd expected that someday she'd be having her own babies here, but after her marriage shattereddetonated might be a better wordthat hope had yielded to hard-headed reality.
It had taken time to get her bearings. Only late last year had Stacy finally shed her married name, Rad-itch, for her maiden name, Layne. Then, at the beginning of this year, when the newly established egg bank began seeking donors, her purpose in life had fallen into place.
"Hold on." The surgeon peered through the microscope. "Too much scar tissue for a vasovasostomy. We'll just have to work a little harder."
Fortunately, the more complex alternative procedure, called a vasoepididymostomy, stood a good chance of succeeding in Dr. Rattigan's hands. As he revised his plans, his willpower filled the room with energy.
The rest of the operation flew by with little conversation. Stacy managed to avoid thinking about Una until the surgery was successfully concluded, sterile dressings applied, sponges, needles and instruments counted and disposed of, and her cap, mask and gown removed. Then, finally, she checked her phone's screen.
The text said: We're mommies!
Standing outside the surgical suite, Stacy felt blood rush to her head.
Too soon 2 no how many, the text continued. Several weeks ago, Una had been implanted with five of Stacy's eggs.
Yay! Stacy texted back, and tried to think of something to add. Maybe she should call. Yes, she ought to. Since the day she'd decided to donate eggs, Stacy had dreamed of this moment.
When she met Una and her husbandwhich was optional for donors as well as recipientsStacy had felt an immediate bond with the heavyset woman. It had strengthened as they'd coordinated their cycles with hormones and underwent the egg retrieval and implantation procedures.
It was miraculous that Una had conceived on the first try.
I should call her.
The phone trembled in Stacy's hand. Babies.
My babies. But they don't belong to me.
Abruptly, she felt as if her bones had gone hollow with longing, and her head began to spin.
"Are you all right?" A firm hand gripped her elbow. She caught the mingled scents of antiseptic soap and Cole's cologne, a blend of citrus and cedar. How embarrassing to have him see her this way.
"Just, um " She managed to swallow, but no further words emerged. Her knees liquefying, she swayed toward Cole. When her cheek grazed his broad shoulder, she registered the smooth texture of his white coat, and felt his breath lightly ruffle her hair.
Stacy rocked onto her own feet. "Skipped lunch." A credible excuse, even though it wasn't true.
"You sure that's all it is?" His slightly shaggy eyebrows drew together in concern. "Might be flu going around."
His chuckle rumbled reassuringly. "Being from Minnesota, I'm still waiting for winter to hit. Seems like it's overdue. I'm sure I'll get used to Southern California's seasons eventually."
"I'd never risk exposing a patient if I felt ill," Stacy told him earnestly. "I'm fine."
That should have been his cue to stride off in his usual brisk, distracted manner. Instead, Cole stood regarding her with his head cocked and his brown hair rumpled from the recently removed surgical cap.
Impulsively, Stacy reached up and tweaked an errant tuft into place. Realizing how inappropriate that was, she drew her hand back. If he resented the impertinence, though, Cole gave no sign of it.
"I'd better make sure you get to the cafeteria safely." His mouth quirked. "Can't have my favorite scrub nurse falling and cracking her head."
She was his favorite surgical nurse? A velvety awareness tingled through Stacy. "I'm finished for the day."
"So I shouldn't care if you fall and crack your head?"
She ought to tease back, to prove that she'd recovered from her momentary weakness. Instead, she said, "Well, I do need a bite to eat. If you're headed to the cafeteria "
"Cole! Got a minute?" The masculine demand wasn't really a request. Dr. Owen Tartikoff, chief of the fertility department and Cole's superior, had a way of appearing out of nowhere and startling everyone. Especially Stacy. If she found Dr. Rattigan a little intimidating, Dr. Tartikoff was downright terrifying. From his fiery hair to his piercing eyes, he seemed to threaten imminent career destruction to anyone who got in his way.
"I'm occupied," Cole responded calmly.
"I was just leaving." With a quivery smile, Stacy darted toward the elevators, leaving the men behind. The last thing she needed was to get caught in the crossfire between those two titans.
As the doors slid open, she wondered what her problem was. Not the flu; she didn't feel sick. Just off-kilter.
She ought to phone Una and invite her out for a nonalcoholic drink, Stacy mused as she headed toward the nurses' locker room. But that unexpected, unwanted, fierce longing to hold her babies in her own arms, to shelter and nurture them herself, had left her ill at ease.
She leaned against the locker room wall, missing Cole's support. Why did Dr. Tartikoff have to come barging in, interrupting their conversation and acting as if she were invisible? She ought to give him a piece of her mind.
The ridiculous notion of scolding Dr. Tartikoff restored Stacy's sense of humor as she changed into street clothes and collected her purse. Yet when she reached the ground floor, her footsteps carried her away from her usual route to the parking garage.
Instead, she followed a walkway that led to a set of bluffside steps. A late-afternoon stroll on the beach ought to clear her head.
The fact that she also avoided any chance of running into Una was merely a coincidence.
Cole kept a close watch on Stacy until the elevator doors closed behind her. Standing for hours in the operating room required serious stamina. If a surgeon felt his or her blood sugar dropping, he could call for an assistant to fetch a sandwich or coffee. Other personnel didn't have that option.
None of which explained his concern when he saw Stacy start to crumple in the hallway. Or the fact that he'd so enjoyed holding her steady.
He could still smell the perfume of her hair. It reminded him of a stroll through the daylily garden in Arneson Acres Park back in Minnesota.
" decided to turn it into a lecture series," Owen Tartikoff was intoning. "I've scheduled you for two weeks from tomorrow."
As Cole checked the calendar in his phone, his mind filled in the blanks in what Owen had said. Lecturethat was a clue. A couple of weeks ago Dr. T. had delivered an outreach talk entitled "Why Is There a Robot in My Operating Room?" To everyone's surprise, so many members of the public and press had showed up that the venue had to be switched from a small lecture hall to the hospital's main auditorium.
"What time?" he asked.
Although Cole preferred presenting papers at medical conferences to addressing the public, he didn't object to speaking about his specialty. "I doubt that advances in men's fertility surgery will be a big draw, but."
"We're calling it 'What's Killing Your Sperm?'" the fertility chief announced.
"That's an incendiary title."
"Exactly." A grin animated Owen's lean face. "Men's fertility rates are dropping. Hot stuff." He clapped Cole on the arm. "Glad you're free."
Usually Cole marched a step or two ahead of everyone around him. Not with Owen. Fortunately, Cole had nothing scheduled on the Saturday afternoon two weeks from tomorrow. If there'd been a conflict, he suspected he'd have had to cancel it.
He could refuse, of course. Owen's disapproval wouldn't bother him. However, now that he'd begun settling into his new position, a little publicity wouldn't hurt. He also hoped to become more involved in the hospital community. While schmoozing had never been his style, he didn't like to seem standoffish, either.
As Dr. T. swung off jauntily, Cole glanced at his watch. Nearly four o'clock. On the way to his office to deal with the usual accumulation of email, he decided to stop by the cafeteria and reassure himself that Stacy had arrived there in one piece.
He took the stairs down from the same-day surgery unit. During his first few weeks at Safe Harbor, sorting out the locations of various offices, operating suites, labs and other facilities had been quite a challenge. The odd layout, Cole had learned, was due to the way the hospital had been remodeled.
A few years earlier, plans to acquire a nearby dental office building and convert it into a high-tech fertility wing had fallen through. Rather than delay establishing its ambitious new programs, the corporation that owned Safe Harbor had stayed on schedule by converting facilities throughout the hospital, situating offices, labs and operating suites all over the six-story structure as well as the medical building next door.
Cole had found it awkward to have to ask directions from the nearest passing orderly or volunteer. Luckily, the practice of men's fertility rarely involved emergencies, so he'd taken the time to study the floor plans posted on each level. Now not only could he navigate, he often directed other staffers and visitors.
On the ground level, Cole followed the hallway to the gleaming cafeteria. The tantalizing scents of barbecue and spices greeted him from the hot-food station, evidence that the on-site chefs were preparing an early dinner. A fair number of nurses, orderlies and on-call doctors, including an obstetrician who worked a regular night shift, remained after most of the staff went home. No doubt they'd be trickling in soon prior to their evening assignments.
Cole scanned the expanse of nearly empty tables. No glimpse of Stacy's soft brown hair and full mouth. Perhaps she'd picked up her food and taken it to the patio.
At that moment, a compactly built man finished paying for a cup of coffee, and turned toward him. It was psychologist Laird Maclaine, a specialist in fertility-related counseling to whom Cole sometimes referred patients. When it came to emotional drama, he preferred to let an expert do the hand-holding.
Laird gave him a friendly nod. "Just the fellow I wanted to see. Any plans for tonight?"
"What's up?" He and Laird both cycled to work and arrived at the bike rack about the same time each morning. They often exchanged tips about bike paths and repair shops.
"The Suncrest Saloon's celebrating Elvis Presley night."
"Is it his birthday or something?" What a coincidence if the King of Rock 'n' Roll shared that date with Stacy. Casting a glance toward the patio doors, Cole realized he'd been thinking about asking her out for a drink. This might be a good excuse.
"Nope, that's January 8," Laird replied cheerfully. "Doesn't everybody know that? Anyway, they do this every few months. Music by the King and a twenty percent discount on Blue Hawaiians."
"What would I have to do?" Cole asked wryly. "Turn into a Smurf and bring a ukulele?"
Coffee sloshed and Laird had to sidestep to keep his shoes dry. "Don't make jokes when I'm holding a drink."
"Sorry. What's a Blue Hawaiian?"
Laird dropped a couple of paper napkins on the floor and pushed them around with his foot to sop up the spilled coffee. "It's a tropical drink. I have no idea what's in it but they're delicious. You interested?"
"Sure." Cole ought to get out more, so why not? As for the idea of inviting Stacy for a drink, he had no business putting his scrub nurse in such an awkward position.
"Really?" the psychologist said.
"If you didn't expect me to agree, why did you ask?" Come to think of it, Laird had extended a few previous invitations that Cole had declined.
The psychologist shrugged. "You may be the closest thing Safe Harbor has to a hermit, but underneath, you strike me as a regular guy."
"Thanks." Cole didn't intentionally keep to himself. However, he'd arrived in Safe Harbor last year still raw from a breakup with a smart, attractive and, as it turned out, aggressive attorney. Felicia's unsubtle hints about expecting a ring for Valentine's Daywith an implied or elsehad triggered Cole's realization that he had no interest in marrying her. While he'd done them both a favor by breaking things off, she hadn't taken it that way. Her nasty insults on parting had stung, although they'd also confirmed the impression that she was the wrong woman for him. "Where is this saloon?"
"On Suncrest Avenue next to Waffle Haven. Right off the main bike path," Laird said.
"I do own a car." For safety, Cole normally drove after dark.
"You can't walk your car home if you overindulge." The psychologist moved aside to let a janitor clean up the spill.
"You can get a ticket for drinking and driving on a bike, can't you?" Cole recalled reading that somewhere.
"Maybe, but it's not likely unless you weave down the middle of Safe Harbor Boulevard."
"I'll take that into account." Cycling in the quiet of the evening amid the twinkle of house lights might be fun. "What time?"
"Nineish." With a wave of his free hand, Laird departed.
Cole decided against checking the patio. Most likely Stacy had left, and besides, she might mistake his professional concern for something more.
And I might mistake it, too.
Although he'd heard of several happy marriages among the Safe Harbor staff, workplace romances often backfired in an ugly fashion. And the person on the lower end of the power structure was usually the one who got hurt. Cole didn't intend to do that to Stacy.
He just needed to socialize more. Starting tonight.