The Doctor's Dilemma. Had fun with this story. The story begins in an airport with the heroine and two babies expecting to see the hero and ends up in the same place with the hero and the babies waiting for the heroine.
Streams of people eddied around Nora Harte, the pile of luggage and the double stroller. She scanned the faces of the crowd. A babble of voices filled the air. In an impatient rhythm, she tapped her foot against the floor.
Where is he?
Since Thursdays were almost a universal doctor’s day off, the trip had been scheduled for today. He knew the flight number and the time of arrival. The plane had been on schedule.
She groaned. The simple baby run had become anything but easy.
The loudspeaker crackled. “Would passenger Nora Harte pick up one of the courtesy phones?”
When the words blared a second time, with a start, Nora realized the message was for her. Yeah, right. She stared at the three suitcases, one diaper bag and the pair of car seats. She’d need the arms of an octopus to fulfill the request.
What had kept Dr. McKay from the meet?
One of the twins puckered his mouth and added his screams to the cacophony in the baggage claim area of the Dallas airport. Nora crouched and stroked the baby’s cheek. “It’s only a minor delay. We’ll be out of here soon.” At least, she hoped they would.
The strident voice issued the command again. “How?” she asked. The logistics of the move defeated her. She couldn’t abandon the babies or the luggage to search for a phone. She’d been deputized to deliver Molly and Tod Jamison to their guardian and she took this duty seriously.
The sight of a man in a gray uniform pushing an empty luggage cart solved the problem. “Sky cap, over here.” She used the voice that had parted crowds on busy New York City sidewalks. The one she hadn’t used since she’d moved upstate.
“Take these bags and the infants.”
“Don’t load babies on the cart, ma’am.”
“Sorry. I know that. I meant the infant seats. I have to answer the phone.”
“Excuse me.” His expression projected the idea she had flipped.
Maybe she had -- last week when she’d agreed to deliver the babies to their guardian. “The page. Nora Harte. That’s me.”
He pointed to the far wall. “Courtesy phone’s over there.”
“Thanks.” Nora gripped the stroller handle. She pushed through the crowd like a subway rider aiming for the last seat. The noise level made her wonder if she’d be able to hear the message.
An easy trip, she thought. A way to add to her dream house account. Just fly to Dallas with the infants, meet their guardian and be on her way.
So far nothing about the trip had been a snap. Why had she thought her experience as a nurse would make the mission a breeze? Even a three month tour of duty in a busy city hospital nursery hadn’t prepared her for the reality of caring for twins.
She hadn’t counted on the surround-sound screams that they’d raised in protest of being air-borne. Or of juggling two infants who wanted a bottle at the same time. Not finding their guardian at the airport had been the final episode in her nightmare of the week.
She lifted the courtesy phone receiver. “Nora Harte speaking. I believe you have a message for me.”
The voice on the other end of the line explained that Dr. McKay had been unavoidably detained. Ms. Harte was to proceed to the car rental desk to pick up a car and the directions to the doctor’s house in Prairie, Texas.
She gritted her teeth. This deviation from her agenda added another problem she should have expected. Why had she believed anything about this trip would work?
Drops of frustration splattered her thoughts. If Dr. McKay had attended his foster sister’s funeral, this disaster would have been avoided. He could have taken custody and faced the journey from hell on his own.
She waved to the sky cap. “Where’s the car rental desk?”
“This way, ma’am.”
He pushed the cart with the finesse of an obstacle course champion. Nora threaded the stroller through the gaps he opened. Tod’s cries changed to gurgles. Molly’s began.
Nora patted the infant girl. “Please, honey, no more tears.”
She groaned. Now she sounded like a commercial, but life had no easy solutions like those found in ad campaigns.
The sky cap halted in front of a counter. “Want me to wait?”
“Yes, please. At least until I learn where to find the car.”
He grinned. “You sure have cute babies and they sure favor you what with that yellow hair and them big blue eyes. Their daddy sure must be proud of them. Bet he can’t wait to see you all.”
Right, Nora thought. So eager he forgot to come. “They’re not...I’m not...” She closed her mouth. She was just the courier on this baby run, but there was no need to explain that to a stranger.
She stooped and dried Molly’s tears. In coloring, the babies did resemble her. What if -- An ache of longing filled her chest. She shook her head.
Not these babies.
Someday, she’d find a man who wanted the same things she did -- a family, a home, roots. As yet, she hadn’t found the one who’d made her dream of forever.
She gave her name, driver’s license and credit card to the clerk. In return, she received the keys to a four door sedan and a detailed set of directions.
Prairie, here we come.
She prayed Dr. McKay would be waiting. The delay had added hours to her trip to her parents’ house. Her plans called for her to be in Santa Fe by tomorrow evening.
The skycap pushed the baggage cart outside. Nora and
the twins followed. A breath of hot air seared her lungs. In New York, the temperature had been in the seventies. Here, it must be near ninety.
Once the baggage had been stowed in the trunk and the infant seats in place, Nora looked at her watch. Before starting the trip, the twins had to be changed and fed. She found the nearest rest room.
She picked up Molly, changed and cuddled the little girl for a few minutes. Then she did the same with Tod.
Adorable, sweet, lovable. She sighed. She couldn’t let these babies steal her heart. In two hours, she’d be in Prairie and on her way out of their lives. She fed them and pushed them to the car.
She studied the map. Seems like a straight shot west and a little south, she thought. Maybe this leg of the trip would work. She backed out of the parking space.
“Babies, we’re on our way.
Neal McKay put the last suture in the jagged cut on his patient’s calf. He stripped off his gloves and stepped back from the table. He glanced at the clock. Nearly three PM. He should have been home an hour ago, but the day hadn’t gone as planned. As the only doctor in town, this was the norm.
As usual, his day off had been filled with emergencies. A fractured tibia, a case of congestive heart failure, an acute allergy attack and now this.
They -- his wards -- should be at the house. He groaned and felt no more prepared for parenthood than he’d been the day he’d learned about his foster sister’s death -- a week after her funeral. Even if he’d known, he wouldn’t have been able to leave his patients to attend the service.
He groaned. The thought of being responsible for the twins’ care brought waves of insecurity. None of his experiences in the past had prepared him for this day.
“Do you want to do the dressing?”
Neal looked at the red-haired nurse. “He’s all yours.”
“Thanks, buddy. I owe you one.” Jack Gardner glared.
“If you’re talking about the patch job, just doing my thing.” Jack’s reaction made Neal chuckle. In college, they’d spent hours one-upping each other. He missed the days when they’d been like brothers.
Jack raised an eyebrow. “Is there a problem you need solved?”
“You might say that.”
“I’m not sure I’m qualified.”
“I don’t know about that.” Neal watched Patty Sue Crawford’s gaze center on his friend. He grinned. Maybe today was the turning point. Since his arrival in Prairie ten months before, she’d pursued him like a wrangler after a runaway steer.
“Can I go back to the ranch?” Jack asked.
Neal frowned. “Only if you promise to avoid horses and cattle until the stitches are out.”
“I can do that.”
Neal doubted the truth of the statement. Since Jack’s return to the ranch last month, he seemed bent on proving he was Cowboy of the Year.
“I’d rather admit you for the night. Give you some intravenous antibiotics and injections for pain. Once the local wears off, you’re going to know you’ve been hurt.”
Jack slid to the edge of the table. “No hospital. What if I stay at my grandmother’s?”
“Might work, especially after I tell Miss Hattie to tie you to the bed. Your injury is nothing to take lightly.”
Jack laughed. “Grandmother will see that I obey orders. She should have been a general. You coming to the barbecue Saturday?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Patty Sue said.
Jack looked away. “Honey, your presence is a given. I meant Doc here.”
Neal shrugged. “I’ll see how things go. My wards arrive today. I’ll probably be too busy learning how to be a daddy.”
“I can’t imagine you with a pair of doggies.”
Neither could Neal, but he wasn’t about to admit it. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Guess not. I kind of envy you. You’ve achieved fatherhood without the M word.” Jack chuckled. “Bring the doggies with you. The ladies will love them.” He shook his head. “Never thought you’d be saddled with kids. They’ll make big changes in your life.”
Patty Sue opened a dressing kit. “I think Neal -- Dr. McKay will be a wonderful father.”
How did she manage to make a deliberate slip of the tongue seem natural? “Thank you, Ms. Crawford. See that Jack has a copy of the discharge instructions and make an appointment for Friday.” He waved to Jack. “I’ll call the prescriptions to the pharmacy and have them delivered to Miss Hattie’s.”
“See you and the doggies Saturday,” Jack called. “I’m sure Grandmother expects to see you there.”
Neal nodded. He’d be at the barbecue with the twins or Miss Hattie would come for him. The town’s matriarch was used to having her way.
He strode down the hall to his office. Parties at the
Gardner mansion were events to be experienced, but he wasn’t sure he could handle an evening of listening to the benefits of life in Prairie.
He had to go -- home. But there were things he had to complete before he left. He welcomed the delay in facing this new responsibility and sat at his desk to phone the drugstore and write a note on Jack’s chart.
Home -- the twins -- his legacy. He groaned. Jack was right.
Two babies would force changes in his lifestyle that he wasn’t ready to make. He wasn’t even sure where to begin.
Instead of heading home, he reached for a stack of letters he’d received in response to his queries about another temporary position. The time to move had come. A year was long enough to stay in one place.
But he had a family now. His choice of where to head next had to include them. How could he make a home for the twins? He’d been raised as a foster child in a series of placements. A football scholarship had allowed him to escape the last foster home where he’d endured three years of being treated as an outsider. He slammed up barriers against the memories of those days.
Those memories brought no answers to his current dilemma. His lifestyle didn’t lend itself to an instant family. The longest he’d stayed in one place had been the four years in college and the same amount in medical school. Every time he considered staying in one place, his anxiety level peaked.
He shoved the letters in a drawer and left the office. He’d do his best for Sherri’s babies but he couldn’t promise them a stable life and a real family. With this thought firmly in place, he left the clinic and jogged down the street toward his rented house to face his foster sister’s attempt to turn him into a family man.
Twin wails drown the sound of the car radio. Nora wanted to pull to the side of the road, put her head on the steering wheel and add her cries to the ones pouring from the back seat. The two hour drive had stretched to three and headed for four.
“Hush, hush, now babies, don’t you cry.” Her voice sounded hoarse. “We’ll be there soon.” If the directions were right, they were about twenty-five miles from Prairie. She was too close to her goal to stop for another futile attempt to quiet them.
When she saw the sign announcing Prairie, Texas, population 10166, she nearly shouted with joy. She slowed the car to meet the speed limit. The crying stopped and so did the pounding in her head.
She looked around and saw houses that appeared to have been there forever. The business district had the same appearance. An odd excitement filled her. For an instant, she felt as though she’d come home.
A foolish notion. Home was an apartment in a town on the Hudson River not far from New York City. Years ago, home had been houses and apartments in myriad towns and cities, but never a place like Prairie.
What would it be like to live here, she wondered. She’d never know. She had a secure job and plans to buy a house and plant her roots in bedrock. She’d even found a house that fit her budget.
A moment later, she turned into Gardner Street and her dream house changed from a suburban ranch into a white clapboard three story house surrounded by a white picket fence. This was the kind of house she’d always dreamed of owning.
She pulled into a driveway that led to a detached garage. After unfolding the stroller, she put the twins in their seats and pushed them onto the wide porch that embraced the house. She rang the bell. Chimes pealed. The babies waved their arms and kicked their legs.
Nora chuckled. “I know the feeling. It’s good to be out of the car. Won’t be long before you’re settled in your new home.”
In the distance a clock chimes three times. She rang the bell again and tapped her foot against the porch floor.
Where is he?
She needed to settle the babies and be on her way. When there was no answer, she tried the door and to her surprise it swung open.
“Dr. McKay, we’re here.”
Her voice echoed in the hallway. She pulled the stroller inside and closed the door. Cool air bathed her heated skin and she sighed with relief. “Dr. McKay.”
Where was that man?
She pushed the stroller into the living room. The lack of homey touches confirmed his bachelor status. The white walls were bare. A couch, two chairs, a coffee table and an entertainment center were the only furnishings. A stack of taped boxes stood near the shelves that lined one wall. The sight stirred memories that made her gut churn.
Was he moving?
According to Lena Greene, he’d been here less than a year. Since finishing his residency, he had worked in two other towns. Because of his frequent moves, even in these days of rapid communication, locating him had taken more than a week.
She parked the stroller beside the couch and returned to the car for the diaper bag and the twins’ suitcases. Then she took a multi-colored afghan from the couch and spread it on the beige carpet. Once the twins had been changed, she laid them on the afghan with some rattles and a pair of teddy bears.
What plans had he made for the babies?
She had expected to see a playpen or even a portable crib. She left the room, found the kitchen and put several bottles in the refrigerator. After filling a glass with water, she leaned against the counter and sipped. Here too, the furnishings were minimal. Though she knew she shouldn’t pry, she couldn’t resist exploring cabinets that resembled Mother Hubbard’s cupboards.
When would he arrive?
Soon, she hoped. She looked at her watch. She hadn’t planned to spend much time here. Just long enough to give him a report and deliver the packet of official papers.
Nora chewed on her lower lip. She hoped he’d come soon. She needed to be on the road.
When she returned to the living room, she sat on the afghan. Molly and Tod reached for the ball on a string that she dangled for them. The hands on her watch crept forward. She fed the twins. Molly fell asleep in her arms. Nora brushed the infant’s soft hair and sighed. Someday, she thought. As soon as Tod fell asleep, she carried their suitcase upstairs. While she waited for Dr. McKay, she’d unpack their belongings.
She opened the first door beyond the stairs. The massive unmade bed and the spicy aroma told her who slept in the room. A stack of sheets sat on a chair. Next door, she found a bathroom. She eyed the large claw-footed tub with envy. The house she planned to buy had an ordinary glass-enclosed tub/shower. She used the facilities and left the room.
The other three bedrooms on the second floor were nearly bare. In one she found a twin bed and in another, an assortment of unpacked boxes. Visions of her childhood flashed in her thoughts. She was sure her parents still carried sealed boxes every time they moved. Remarks she’d heard so many times filled her head.
“We don’t need the things in this one.”
“Then let’s not unpack it.”
She hurried downstairs, but even there, she couldn’t escape her memories. She slumped on the couch and stared at the sleeping babies.
Tightness settled in her chest. He hadn’t made a single preparation for the twins. She knew what that meant. Like her parents he was a rover. Why had his foster sister named him guardian for her babies? Surely, the woman knew the kind of life he lived. How could she hand the babies over to him? There was no choice. He was their legal guardian.
She stared at her watch. She’d been here for over a half hour. Her simmering anger built like steam in a boiling kettle.
The man was irresponsible. He’d known they were coming. He could have left a note. He could have called to see if they’d arrived safely.
She knew a doctor’s life was filled with unexpected emergency situations, but he’d known for a week when they would arrive.
He could have at least bought cribs.
She heard the front door close. She straightened and tried to hold her anger in check.
A tall, dark-haired man strode into the living room. Nora sucked in a breath. A dark green knit shirt spanned his broad chest and made his shoulders seem massive. Well- worn jeans molded his muscular legs. His face was ruggedly handsome. On the physical side, he embodied her dream of the perfect man. Except, she had seen the unpacked boxes, one evidence of his restless nature, and in that, he fit her every nightmare.
He grinned and his expression was boyish and devil-may-care. As his gaze swept from her face to her feet, his smile changed.
“Dr. McKay, I presume.” She struggled to keep calm.
“At your service.” He leaned against the door frame.
“Where have you been?”
“At the clinic.”
“Did you forget we were coming? What are you going to do about Molly and Tod?”
His gaze met hers. She saw confusion there. “Raise them, I guess.”
His answer brought her to a halt. For an instant, she felt sorry for him. He’d had little chance to refuse the responsibility. Then she remembered his lack of preparation.