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.