Authors: Marie Ferrarella
Tags: #Fiction, Romance
bestselling and RITA
Award-winning author has written over one hundred and seventy-five books, some under the name Marie Nicole. Her romances are beloved by fans worldwide. Check out her website at www. marieferrarella.com.
Available from Mills & Boon
by Marie Ferrarella
by Amanda Stevens
Warrior for One Night
by Nancy Gideon
Sleeping Beauty Suspect
by Dani Sinclair
More Than a Hero
by Marilyn Pappano
by Michele Hauf
The Cradle Files
by Delores Fossen
by Ellen Henderson
In memory of my mother and father,
who took the English language to places
it had never been before.
atalya Pulaski closed the outer door to her third-floor office and flipped the lock. A heartfelt, weary sigh escaped her lips.
Well, that was the last of them.
Barring an emergency, she qualified, rubbing the raw spot on the side of her neck the last patient had awarded her when he made a sudden grab for the pendant that had dangled so temptingly before him. She had been leaning forward to check on the condition of the little boy’s ears at the time. The chain had bitten into her skin before she and Julian’s mother had managed to untangle the boy’s forceful little fingers from the death grip he had on her necklace.
Julian’s strength was head and shoulders above his age group, Natalya thought as she retreated to her inner office, turning lights off as she went. No doubt about it, Mr. and Mrs. Sands had a pro wrestler in their future.
And she, Natalya silently promised herself, had a hot bath in her immediate future. Visions of soaking in a tub amid fragrant bubbles had practically been all that had kept her going the last two hours of what felt like a marathon day.
been a marathon day, she reminded herself.
It had begun at six with a hysterical phone call from a first-time mother. Marion Walters thought that everything was an emergency when it came to her month-old baby. It had taken Natalya almost ten minutes to ascertain that the “horrible skin condition” was actually a bad case of diaper rash. Even in the silence that engulfed her now, Natalya could still hear a mixture of Marion’s wails accompanied by Justin’s lusty crying.
By the time she’d managed to calm the woman down, Natalya found herself wide-awake. With two hours to go before her actual day began, she’d decided she might as well get a jump on things and possibly finish early for a change.
Natalya smiled to herself. After all this time, she was still an optimist. The best laid plans of mice and men and newly minted pediatricians often went astray. In her case, it was because Vicki, her nurse/
receptionist, had overbooked her once again. She was beginning to think that Vicki had trouble remembering how many minutes were in an hour.
Determined to see all of her patients in a timely fashion, Natalya found herself without so much as two minutes to rub together.
Her overcrowded day had left her struggling with a fairly uncommon bout of irritability. Although, in her own defense, trying to make an accurate diagnosis could be absolutely exasperating when over half her patients couldn’t answer her question “where does it hurt?”
Natalya shed her lab coat and hung it on the hook behind her door. That was probably the most frustrating part of being a pediatrician, she thought—the difficulty in communicating. Of course, sometimes it was still easier communicating with her young patients than it was talking with their parents. The latter were divided into two categories: those who were working parents who had taken time off to bring their child in and needed to get back to the rat race and those who were stay-at-home parents whose days were filled with wall-to-wall complaining. Both had one thing in common. They wanted their children cured yesterday.
She supposed she couldn’t blame them, Natalya mused, crossing to her desk. If she had kids and they were ill, she’d want them well again at the speed of light.
Not that that scenario was ever going to happen,
she thought ruefully. The dire sentence she’d had pronounced to her at the age of eighteen was still as true now as it had been then. Because of a severe case of endometriosis, the joy of experiencing motherhood firsthand had been taken away from her. She was never going to be able to feel life moving inside her. Never going to push a tiny being out into the world after chewing off half her lower lip to keep from screaming.
What had happened at eighteen had shaped the rest of her life. When she’d entered medical school, there had never been a question as to what path she would take once the diploma was in her hand. If she couldn’t have a baby of her own, at least she could still hold them, help them, nurture them, which was why she’d become a pediatrician. And she kept very busy, so that the inherent loneliness of her life sentence never had a chance to infiltrate her soul for long.
But this pace did have its draining moments.
Natalya closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair for just a moment. She knew she should be making a hasty retreat before someone called the office with yet another emergency, but she just couldn’t make herself get up. Besides, escape was never a sure thing, not where she was concerned. The answering service had her number. As did a few of the more worried patients, like Mrs. Sands. And there was no question that, if someone called, she would go.
Natalya shifted in her seat and her shoulders announced their displeasure. God, she hoped the tub was free. Although there were two bathrooms in the apartment, only one had a tub.
That was what she got for sharing a place with two of her sisters. Not that Sasha was going to be there much longer. Now that sexy-as-all-hell Detective Anthony Santini had finally proposed to her older sister, Natalya was certain they’d be getting married soon. That left her and Kady—until Tatania joined them come June.
Little Tania, a doctor.
And Marja wasn’t far behind.
Natalya smiled to herself. She had no right to be weary. Her parents, now
had a right to be weary. There were times she wondered how her parents had done it. Granted, she and Sasha helped out with any spare money they earned, but putting five daughters through medical school even took a toll on families who were far better off then hers. Still, it was her parents’ dream—admittedly her mother’s more than her father’s—to have all of their children become doctors.
That—she’d heard more than once—was the reason why they had left their native Poland in the first place: to give the family they were planning all the advantages they never had. All the advantages that a country like the United States could give. And no
amount of sacrifices for either of them had been too much to achieve this goal.
Natalya suddenly realized that her eyes had closed.
“If you don’t move in the next couple of minutes, Nat, you’re going to fall asleep right here,” she muttered under her breath.
Hands gripping the armrests on her office chair, she was about to propel herself into a standing position when she heard the beginning notes of “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing” break through the silence.
Resigned, Natalya removed her hands from the armrests and fished out her cell phone from her skirt pocket. So much for making an escape.
Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself together and looked down at the LED screen on her phone. The name that flashed across it told her that her caller wasn’t the parents of one of her patients.
It was Clancy.
She stifled a groan. “I’m too tired, Clancy,” she protested to the ringing phone.
She and Clancy Donovan had been best friends since the time she’d come to his defense in the school cafeteria when three bullies had ganged up on him. Ever for the underdog, she’d shamed the bullies into backing off. Even at ten, she’d always known what to say or do in any given situation.
The cell phone rang again. She continued to look at it, working her lower lip between her teeth.
She’d forgotten. Forgotten that she’d promised
Clancy to go with him to that new show that was opening at the art gallery tonight. Mrs. Levinson and her overactive twins, in for their child care checkups, had knocked that right out of her memory bank. It was around that time that she’d begun to fantasize about soaking in a hot tub until the end of time.
For a second, Natalya debated not answering the phone. After all, there were times when she did shut off her cell phone because it interfered with some of the equipment at the hospital.
But that would be just the coward’s way out. She didn’t believe in deception. And Clancy would be crushed if he ever found out that she’d deliberately ignored him.
Bracing herself—because Clancy was not the type to give up once he had set his mind to something—she flipped open the phone and placed it against her ear.
“Hi, Clancy. Look, I know I said I was going to go with you to that gallery opening tonight, but I am just wiped out.” She knew how much he hated going anywhere alone so she quickly added, “I could see if Kady’s doing anything.”
Her younger sister, Leokadia, thought that Clancy was a little strange, but, like her, she regarded him as a lost soul. And Kady had come to appreciate the fact that Clancy was steadfast. He took the title of friend seriously and did whatever was required of
him to maintain that position. Despite all his quirks, loyalty was never a question.
Taking a breath, Natalya waited for a response on the other end but there was none.
Okay, so he was hurt. It wasn’t as if this was the first time. She could deal with that. “Clancy, I’ve had one of those days they write sitcoms around. I didn’t even have time for lunch today.”
There was still no response on the other end. She could just see him feeling rejected. Guilt began to prick at the edges of her conscience like tiny nettles in a field of overgrown weeds.
Maybe this was a really big deal for him. She supposed she could muster up some strength. After all, she’d managed to survive thirty-six-hour shifts at the hospital during her intern days. That wasn’t exactly a century ago.
“Okay,” she surrendered, “if you promise to have a sandwich ready for me, I’ll be by your apartment in a half hour. Lucky for you I’ve got a little black dress stashed in my supply closet for just these kinds of emergencies.”
Natalya waited for the inevitable onslaught of backhanded gratitude that Clancy had turned into an art form. When it failed to materialize, she had no idea what to make of it. Was he pouting? Was something wrong?
“Clancy, say something,” she ordered.
Each word sounded more like steam escaping from a faulty radiator in the dead of winter than something that had actually been spoken.
An uneasiness undulated through her, but she banked it down. “Clancy, if this is your idea of a joke, it’s not funny.”
Clancy was not beyond playing practical jokes. She had always thought that it was his way of dealing with the fact that he earned a living by working in a mortuary. She knew it couldn’t exactly be pleasant, having to deal with grieving people and dead bodies every day.
That and—in contrast to her own home life, which was the last word in warmth—Clancy’s childhood had been one with which Dickens could have sympathized.
He looked like a walking victim, something that he was with a fair amount of regularity. Until Natalya had come into his life.
When Clancy made no response to her words, she suddenly asked, “Are you sick?”
Instead of saying yes or no, she heard him repeat the word “Come,” weakly.
In the background, she heard a noise, like a loud bang. And then there was nothing. The connection disappeared.
Had she lost the signal, or had something happened to Clancy? She didn’t want her mind going there, but he wasn’t the type to carry a joke too far.
“Hello? Hello? Clancy, if this is your stupid idea
of a joke…” she said, clinging to the hope that it was. She’d rush off to his apartment, thinking the worst, and Clancy would be there in that almost threadbare tuxedo he insisted on wearing to gallery openings, waiting for her. And grinning that lopsided grin of his.
At which point she wouldn’t know whether to hug him with relief or beat on him with both fists for scaring her.
She stood and debated her next move. Hot tub, or Clancy’s apartment.
With a silent promise to herself to read him the riot act once she found him alive and well, she chose Clancy’s apartment. Natalya quickly changed into the dress she kept on hand for last-minute invitations to hospital fund-raisers and the occasional unexpected date that came upon her like a diamond in the rough.
She was dressed, out of the office and heading toward the elevator in less than five minutes. Adrenaline was pumping through her veins even though she told herself that there was nothing to worry about and that Clancy was fine.
She was still telling herself that when she was standing outside of Clancy’s small apartment some twenty-five minutes later. She knocked on his door, but he didn’t answer. Not then, nor the second time that her knuckles rapped against the door.
She could feel her palms growing slightly damp.
“Clancy,” Natalya said under her breath, “I swear I’m going to wring your skinny neck if you’re doing this to get even with me for trying to beg off,” she promised more to hearten herself than to threaten him.
Beneath it all was an uneasy feeling that something was very wrong.
“Enough with being polite,” she announced, digging into her purse. She took out her key to Clancy’s apartment, which he had given her in case of emergencies.
“I think this qualifies as an emergency,” she said out loud, as if Clancy was standing at her elbow. “And when I find you standing there, smirking, you’re going to see just how much of an emergency you have on your hands. Please be there, smirking,” she added, turning the key.
When she opened the door, there was no one there. Her heart sank down into the pit of her stomach.
It took less than thirty seconds to scan the living room. The same amount for the bedroom, and the bathroom door was standing open, allowing her to see in. Clancy wasn’t anywhere. This wasn’t like him. He never forgot an appointment. Not even once.
The uneasiness that had been moving through her was now racing in her veins.
Something was very wrong.
Now that she thought about it, he’d told her how much he wanted to see this particular artist, saying that
he could relate to the man’s angst. He wouldn’t be wasting time like this, he’d want to get to the art gallery.
Taking out her cell phone, Natalya quickly pressed the number to Clancy’s phone. The second she finished, she heard a busy signal pulsating against her ear. It had that peculiar rhythm that phones had when they weren’t properly disconnected.