Book excerpt

Straight from the Heart

Barbara Delinsky

St. Martin's Press

STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART (Chapter 1)

HEATHER COLE was an outsider trying to look as though she belonged. She kept her shoulders straight, her eyes level, her gait relaxed. When the few people dotting nearby paper-strewn tables paid her no heed, she slipped through the door into the large conference hall and, relieved that shed been able to gain entrance without identification or commitment, found an unobtrusive resting spot against the rear wall.

Every seat was fillednot that she really wanted to sit. She wasnt sure if she wanted to be there at all, but something inside had pushed her. She had shopping to do in New Haven anyway, she reasoned, and the medical center was close to her escape route, the expressway.

A man stood at the podium, addressing the gathering of visiting medical personnel in a low monotone. Heather scanned the faces of the four men and women seated in an arc behind him, all specialists in one aspect of heart disease or another, so the bulletin shed received had said. She wondered which one was Robert McCrae. In her mind, shed formed an image of a distinguished-looking gentleman in his fifties, perhaps balding, very definitely a father figure. None of the faces she saw fit the image.

Polite applause interrupted Heathers speculation, and one of the female speakers rose from her chair and approachedthe podium. When she began to discuss arterial disease, Heather, whod read and reread the agenda so many times that its contents were committed to memory, identified her as Elizabeth Palcomb. So the other woman, due to speak on arrhythmia, was Rita Connolly. And of the two menwhich one was Robert McCrae?

Twenty minutes later she had her answer. The moderator returned to the podium and, with a minimum of words, introduced the doctor Heather had come to hear. Again there was applause. Heather stood straighter, her eye riveted to the man who approached the dais.

He was extremely tall, extremely well built, extremely good-looking. If hed reached forty, she would have been surprised. Though there was a sternness about hima hardness along his jaw, across the bridge of his nosethere was also an approachability. Perhaps, she mused, it was the relaxed set of his shoulders. Or the way his thick dark hair persisted, in spite of the hand he dashed across it, in falling over his brow.

His voice was deep and filled with confidence. The treatment of heart valve disease has advanced dramatically in the past twenty years, he began, and for an instant Heather debated turning and running. Did she really want to hear this? Shed been doing fine, just fine for the past twenty years. Perhaps she was asking for trouble.

But she stayed in place, mesmerized as much by Robert McCraes optimistic tone as by the dreamlike images that flitted through her mind. A husbandchildrenher running free across a meadow in the bright sunshine,breathless from happiness alone. How much she wanted those things that others so often took for granted!

She listened, entranced, barely moving during the fifteen-minute address. When Robert McCrae returned to his seat, her gaze lingered on him. Even seated, without a hospital coat or a stethoscope or a bevy of interns and residents by his side, he radiated capability. Intuitively she knew shed trust him, but still she was frightened.

What frightened her most was that her future was in her own hands now. Her parents were dead. Their family doctor had shifted his practice to Florida, and Heather had neither rapport with nor faith in his replacement. And since she rarely mentioned her physical condition to friends or acquaintances, she couldnt look to them for encouragement one way or another. She was alone, and the responsibility for her actionor inactionweighed heavily on her mind.

Anxious to relieve the burden as shed always done, by blocking it out and concentrating on brighter things, Heather slipped out into the hall. She would fetch her car and drive home, she decided. It had been a long day. Wanting to avoid the worst of the crowd, shed been at the stores when theyd first opened. Shed secured a bundle of fantastic pieces of suede, a bagful of magnificent silk needlework threads and a boxful of tiny, vividly colored beads, as well as interfacing, a fresh supply of needles and thread and a bolt of canvas. New materials always gave her a lift, and shed be heading home with a loaded car. Thus fortified, she was set to attack the order her buyer had phoned in the week before.

Heather glanced back at the doors now closed behind her and felt a faint nagging.

She was hungry. That was it. Shed get a bite to eat before leaving the medical center.

Following the simple directions given her at a nearby information booth, she found the coffee shop and sat down to a carton of yogurt, some rye crackers and a cup of weak tea. Ignoring the hospital personnel and visitors around her, she firmly directed her thoughts back to Chester, her haven, and her work.

She had much to be grateful for. Her home was a delight. It was old but charming, and had responded well to the renovation shed commissioned. Quiet and serene, it was the perfect place to work, which she did with pleasure.

She smiled at the thought of how her business had mushroomed. From that first set of handbags given out on consignment six years ago had grown standing orders from some of the finest stores and boutiques up and down the East Coast. Shed been urged to expand, to take on help and double her volume, but shed resisted, convinced that the very scarcity of her bags was an integral part of their appeal.

Shed been fortunate. Luck had been with her, and timing. The buyers insisted that her success was due to skill and dedication, but she was too modest to wholeheartedly agree. She loved what she did, which made dedication a breeze, and as for skill, well, she knew there were many craftsmen more talented than she who simply didnt have an eye for the market as she did. And it was no wonder! Shed daydreamed over high-fashion magazines for years, so a feel for style was second nature to her. And now that shed made her mark in the field, she was privy to inside information as to whatshapes and colors and textures designers would be promoting six months to a year down the road.

Draining the last of her tea, she gathered her empty cups and papers together and deposited them in a nearby receptacle. Assuring herself that she didnt want to get lost, she returned the way shed come, passing the conference room just as the doors opened and the attendants began to stream out.

Her step slowed. Twosomes and threesomes passed her, many in lab coats or white uniforms, others in street clothes. She cast a glance over her shoulder and saw that Rita Connolly, of arrhythmia renown, was talking with a cluster of people.

Heather told herself to keep walking, but her feet didnt obey. She found herself stopping by a full-length window, turning, putting both hands against the wood guardrail by her hips. She looked at the conference room door, then away. Curiosity. That was all it was. But when Dr. Robert McCrae emerged to stand in the corridor in deep conversation with two of the conference attendees, Heather knew it wasnt simple curiosity making her heart pound.

She had a problem. Robert McCrae could well have the solution. But did she want could she what if there was a complication, or if things were worse than she thought?

For some reason he glanced her way. She quickly looked down. Again she told herself to move. Again her body disobeyed. She shifted her gaze to the window, but within minutes she was looking back at the doctor.

He was even taller than hed appeared to be behind the podium. More broad shouldered. Stronger-looking. Heseemed intent as he talked and the sternness was there, but he was still very animated, and when he smiled, which he did once, she could see faint grooves in his cheeks.

His gaze skittered over the milling group, catching hers a second time. A second time she looked away. When she finally dared seek him out again, new people had joined him. He was listening closely, his head bent, his brow furrowed, not in worry but in concentration. With one hand buried in the pocket of his gray slacks, his navy blazer was pushed back to reveal a crisp white shirt, a solid chest, a lean, belted waist.

Heather couldnt help but stare. She tried to picture the man in operating room garb, with a gauze mask covering his mouth and nose, but even the small shudder of apprehension the image caused wasnt enough to make her look away.

She shouldnt have come. One part of her screamed it. The other part, though, held her rooted to the spot, and she felt herself torn in two directions at once. She should leave; she should stay. She should ignore her problem; she should attend to it.

Wistfully she looked at the stragglers now retreating down the corridor. Dismally she looked back at Robert McCrae. Their eyes met and held. It wasnt too late, she realized, her heart thudding softly against her breast. No one knew she was here. No one would have to know. Shed simply leave before anything happened and forget that shed ever come.

Robert McCrae knew the instant she straightened from the guardrail. Hed originally thought she was waiting for someone, but then hed caught the nervous way shewas looking at him. Looking, looking away, looking again. Hed seen her inside the conference room, standing against the back wall, leaving soon after hed finished speaking. He didnt know what had brought her to the medical center, but instinct told him that her reasons were as important as those of the rest of the audience, if not more so.

At the risk of offending those whod remained to talk with him, he excused himself with a brief apology and headed down the corridor. Damn but she was moving fast, he thought, as though she were fleeing someone or something. When she rounded a corner and he lost sight of her, he broke into a jog, catching up only after shed left the building and was making her way down the front steps.

Hey, hold up! He lightly clasped her arm.

Startled, Heather swung her head around. Her shoulder-length hair echoed the movement, swirling against her cheeks before settling. Unfortunately it was the only thing that did settle. Her eyes widened; her pulse raced; her stomach curled into a knot. Her escape had been thwarted by none other than the man whod inspired it. Only with a great effort did she maintain an outer semblance of composure.

Sensing her inner tension, Robert gentled his voice. I saw you in the conference room. Up in back. Then again in the corridor just now. Were you waiting to see me?

No, she answered too quickly, then bit her lip. Her voice was higher than usual, but never having heard her speak, the doctor didnt know that, she reasoned. Of course, she had no idea that guilt was written all over her face.

Robert couldnt miss it. He chanced a small smile. Thats too bad. I was really in need of an escape from the group back there. His hand hadnt left her arm, and very subtly he urged her into step alongside him. Where are you headed?

I, uh, Im on my way home, she managed, unable to take her eyes from his. They were gray and intent, not at all distracted as she might have thought such a busy doctors would be. She thought of the approachability shed sensed in him from the first, and she wondered if he was that way with patients.

Have time for a cup of coffee? he asked. He knew that there was something on her mind, also knew that it would take some coaxing to get it out. A casual coffee break was a possible vehicle.

I really cant, Heather answered breathlessly. Id like to get home before the traffic mounts up.

Wheres home?

She hesitated for just an instant before deciding that no harm could come from giving such a simple piece of information. Chester.

He digested that as they continued to walk. Chester was in the Connecticut Valley, a small town, quaint, picturesque and distinctly colonial. It seemed fitting that the young woman beside him should be from there. Chester was as unspoiled as she appeared to be. Not that unspoiled meant unpolished; though simple in design, her linen suit was chic and sophisticated. Do you come to the city often?

Only when I need supplies.

Supplies?

I make handbags. Another harmless fact, she reasoned.

He nodded, wanting to know more but feeling the urgency of one other question. What brought you to the medical center?

If Heather could have run then, she would have. But there was the matter of Robert McCraes fingers still circling her arm and the tacit admission of guilt a speedy escape would surely constitute. With due effort, she gathered her senses and forced herself to calm down.

I received a bulletin announcing todays lectures. They sounded interesting, and since I was in the neighborhood

Robert was tempted to remind her that shed left soon after hed finished speaking and that, though she claimed to be wary of traffic, shed hung around the corridor until the rest of the lectures were done. But he knew better than to put her on the spot. She seemed skittish, unsure, worried, if the way she gnawed on her lower lip was any indication.

The audience consisted primarily of personnel from neighboring hospitals and medical centers, he ventured. Im afraid we didnt expect many laymen to attend. Not that I object, mind you. Outreach is one of the major goals of hospital publications, and lectures such as todays are usually open. You must be on our mailing list.

She didnt look at him, but she couldnt have said where they were walking, either. He was simply guiding her, slowly, comfortably. And strangely, she trusted him not to lead her astray. I donate money now and again. In turn I get periodic newsletters.

And you read them. Thats more than most do.

She looked up at him in surprise. I always read them. Indeed, there were certain articles shed read and reread, then tucked in the back of her mind, suppressed but never quite forgotten. Medicine is a fascinating field. There are new diagnostic techniques, new methods of treatment, new theories of prevention.

Particularly in the field of cardiac care, he injected meaningfully. Were living at a time of great optimism. Thats one of the things I was trying to say today . Did it get across?

Heather swallowed. There was optimism and there was optimism. It was one thing to hear talk of statistics, even specific case studies. It was quite another to put oneself in the position of possibly being among the failures.

I think so, she said, wishing she sounded more sure of herself, if for his sake alone. He was a good doctor, a superior doctor, if the press reports shed read about him were correct. And they had to be. Gazing up at him now, realizing again how relatively young he was, she knew that to be the chief of cardiology at as prestigious a teaching hospital as the Yale-New Haven he had to be outstanding.

Such conviction, he chided with a dry chuckle, then looked ahead and nodded to a passing colleague.

Only then did Heather check out her surroundings. Robert McCrae was leading her up the steps toward another building. Uh, I really have to run, she exclaimed nervously. Though she held back, she didnt quite pull away.

Twenty minutes. Thats all I ask. This time his chuckle was a rueful one. Thats all I have, actually. Ive got an afternoon packed with appointments, but its been a long time since breakfast and I could use a little something. Keep me company. Please?

But youll want to be talking with other doctors

I talk with other doctors all the time. Its not everyday that I get a chance to talk with a craftswoman.

But I really dont have much to say

Let me be the judge of that, he interrupted again, putting his hand lightly at the back of her waist and drawing her onward.

Heather didnt argue further. For one thing, she didnt want to make a scene. For another, surprisingly, she didnt want to leave. Not yet, at least. Now that shed gotten over the initial shock of a face-to-face confrontation with Robert McCrae, she was aware of feeling oddly relaxed with him. Safe.

Before long they were winding through a small cafeteria. Robert nodded in greeting to various people they passed, but he steered her to a quiet corner table set apart from the rest.

Are you sure this is all youll have? he asked, removing an apple from his tray and holding it out to her.

She smiled sheepishly. I had yogurt and crackers after I left the conference hall. This is dessert.

So shed gone to the coffee shop and then returned, he mused. There was definitely something on her mind. Pondering what it might be, he removed a turkey sandwich from the tray, then a carton of milk, a container of pudding and a cup of steaming coffee. None of thiseven? he asked, pointing to the coffee as he set the tray aside.

I dont drink coffee. Too much caffeine.

He folded his long frame into the seat opposite her. Wise lady. Yogurt, an apple, no caffeineI wish half of my patients were as conscientious as you. I wish I were as conscientious as you. His lips thinned resignedly. Unfortunately I need all the stimulation I can get. Its been a long day already and its far from over.

What time do you start?

In the morning? Im usually here by six.

And you finish up ?

Somewhere between seven and eight at night.

Heathers eyes grew round in appreciation. Thats a full day.

He stuck a straw in the carton of milk and took a long sip before answering. And a busy one. More often than not I wish the day were even longer. I never seem to get as much done as I want. Long after my bodys shut down for the day, my mind keeps going.

It must be very rewarding, what you do.

It is. He removed the plastic wrapper from his sandwich. Demanding and challenging, heartbreaking at times, but, yes, rewarding.

She felt a frisson of unease. Heartbreakingyou mean when a patient doesnt make it?

Robert noted the shadow that passed over her features and took a more positive tack. Yes. But I like to think of those who do, of those who wouldnt have had a chance if they hadnt come to us. Its truly miraculous what were able to do nowadays. What with the heart-lung machine, vastly improved instruments and methodsand man-made materials, we can do unbelievable repair jobs. He stopped, took a bite of his sandwich and waited, hoping that shed broach the subject of whatever it was that had brought her to the medical center. When she simply munched on her apple, he took the bull by the horns.

Usually laypeople who attend lectures such as todays have specific reasons for doing so, most often a sick friend or relative. Theyre doing research, so to speak, intending to pass on the information they hear. Is that the case with you?

She swallowed a chunk of apple whole and had to clear her throat before speaking. No.

No father with a heart condition, or sister, or cousin?

She shook her head. I was just curious.

He narrowed his gaze in mock suspicion. Then youre a journalist.

I told you. Her heart was pumping faster. I make handbags.

He let her off the hook for the moment, dropping his gaze to the bag that hung from two leather braids by her chair. Did you make that one?

Yes.

May I see it?

She raised the rectangular, intricately pieced leather bag and passed it across the table, then sat back somewhat apprehensively while Robert McCrae studied it. There was good reason why shed never marketed her bags herself. Each one was dear to her heart, its creation something akin, she imagined, to giving birth. She didnt think she could bear watching someone lift it, turn it,poke at it and then put it down in dismissal and turn away.

Robert McCrae didnt put it down in dismissal, or turn away. This is remarkable, he exclaimed in a deep voice. Did you do it all yourself?

His approval brought a quick smile to her face. Uh-huh.

He dragged his gaze from her smile and traced the fine needlework on the front of the bag. Even this?

Uh-huh.

Youre very talented. He turned the bag again. Are your others like this?

I use different patterns and materials and colors. Some are woven, some made of carpet. Some have beading instead of needlepoint. But I suppose you could say that all my bags have a distinctive look to them.

Ill saynot that Im an expert on handbags. Where do you sell them?

She named several boutiques in New York City. Neiman-Marcus and Bloomingdales carry them, too, but on a limited basis. I can only make so many a week.

How many?

Twenty.

He looked at the bag a final time before returning it to her. Unbelievable. It must keep you busy. You have assistants, dont you?

Nope. Just me.

And you make twenty bags like this in a week? Id think the handwork on one alone would take days.

Its not so bad, actually. The basic patterns for a weeks work are similar, so I cut and stitch all the fabric first. The handwork is the fun part. I sit back in a comfortablechair, listen to music and work away. Its very relaxing. And tailor-made for her. Minimal physical exertion, minimal psychological stress.

Sounds it. But he was homing in on what she hadnt said. Then you dont have a family? A husband?

After a split seconds hesitation, she murmured, No.

He heard the hesitation, caught the ghost of a crease between her eyes before it disappeared, and sensed he was getting warmer. Im surprised.

Surprised? Why?

He took another bite of his sandwich, then shrugged. I dont know. Aside from the matter of volume, your work would fit beautifully around kids. You seem very nurturing. Soft was the word he wanted to use, but it sounded too suggestive. Youre the right age. Youre attractive and successful.

Heather had averted her gaze and was skimming the rest of the cafeteria, seeing nothing. She wanted a husband and kids. And yes, she knew that her work could easily accommodate them. But that was only part of her present discomfort. That Dr. Robert McCrae should be calling her attractive and successful was unsettling. She attempted to steer the conversation elsewhere, but underestimated the perverse tenacity of the wayward part of her.

How about you? Your work sounds a little less yielding than mine. It must be hard on your family.

Im divorced, he said without pause. Youre right. My work is far less yielding. Thats pretty much what broke the marriage up.

Though he didnt seem in any pain, she felt instantly contrite. Im sorry. I shouldnt have asked.

Robert tried to stifle a smile. Why not? I started it. She was soft and sensitive.

At a loss for words, Heather simply sent him a helpless look. He found it to be soft, sensitive and honest, and before he knew it he was making a confession. Anyway, its okay. My ex-wife was right when she accused me of being unfaithful. My work is my mistress, and Ive never wanted it otherwise. Gail and I have been divorced for seven years. Shes remarried and is much happier now. I can accept that. He paused and frowned. Whats harder to accept is that I have two children I barely know.

Heathers eyes widened. Two children? she breathed, more than a little envious.

Michael is ten, Dawn is twelve. They were very youngthree and fivewhen we split, and I was just as bad a father as a husband during the years we were together.

Drawn into his story, Heather momentarily forgot where she was and whom she was with. Do you see them often?

Robert shook his head. His frown faded, leaving a gentle sadness. Gail has custody. They live in San Franciscothats where I was working when we were together, and her present husband has always lived therebut the grandparents are all on this coast. I see the kids when they come visiting on holidays and vacations. He nudged the remains of his sandwich around his plate and took a deep breath. I suppose I could see them more. Gail wouldnt object. But the fact of the matter is that I dont know what to do with them. Theyre as awkwardaround me as I am around them. He raised his eyes to Heathers. Sad, isnt it?

Yes, she said softly, without condemnation, but mostly because you seem bothered by it. Your mistress falls short, evidently.

No, not really. In my day-to-day life Im not aware of lacking anything. Its just when I think of Michael and Dawn that I feel badly. Head tucked low, he ran a finger along the side of his nose. When he glanced up at Heather from beneath his brows, his cheeks were flushed. I dont know why Im telling you this. I dont usually bore people with my personal life. More aptly, he usually maintained a professional distance. He still didnt know why this woman was at the hospital.

Theres nothing at all boring about your life, Heather protested, her eyes growing brighter. You have a wonderful job and an unbelievable reputation. You travel

How do you know that?

Past newsletters. And you writeIve seen your books. Youve been married. You have children. She shook her head in amazement. Compared to someone like me, youve done so much living. In spite of the situation with your kids, Im green with envy.

His expression softened. You dont look green. Maybe a little pale. Too much work and too little play. What do you do for play?

His comment about her color and the question that followed it toppled Heather back to earth. For play? she echoed meekly, her gaze dropping to the apple core she turned in her fingers. Oh, I read or shop or take walks in the country. Actually, the walks were mostfrequently around her backyard, which was country aplenty. And though the sedate pace of them didnt bother her, the fact that she was more often than not alone did.

As though hed read her mind, Robert tilted his head. Have you a steady date, or a fiancé?

No.

No special man?

No.

That surprised him even more than her being single; people had wised up since his time and were marrying later and later. But she was so lovely, with her dark, shiny hair, her delicate features, her soft voice and her wealth of compassion, that he couldnt imagine any man being oblivious to her charm. Of course, there was always the possibility, he reminded himself, that the offers were there but she turned them down.

Do your parents live nearby? he asked, unable to believe she was totally alone.

Theyre both dead.

Then you must have friends in Chester.

She looked up with a tremulous smile. Oh, yes. The people there are wonderful. Very caring. But it wasnt the same. Whereas her neighbors and the others she called friends were warm and generous and protective in their way, they werent family. The element of love was missing.

Robert read between the lines, cued by a clipped phrase here, a suspended tone there. Are you lonely? he asked quietly.

She tried to force a laugh, but it sounded slightly wooden. Arent we all at times?

I suppose. Let me rephrase that, then. Do you want a family?

She nodded solemnly. Id like that more than anything, I think. Its not that Im unhappy now. Ive been fortunate in so many things, and I dont mean to sound ungrateful. But a family would be nice. I dream about it sometimes .

Her words trailed off as she suddenly realized the extent of her disclosure. Shed never been one to confide in strangers, and though shed known about Dr. Robert McCrae for months, he was personally still a stranger. Yet he had a way about himperhaps it was bedside mannerthat generated confidence. She was sure that what shed told him would remain between the two of them, but Had she told him too much, or not enough? It would be so easy to blurt out the rest now, to tell him that she suffered from valve stenosis, that shed come to hear him speak with an ear toward seeing if he could help her, that shed been told she should have surgery before she ventured to have children.

But then hed know, and hed urge her toward surgery, and she wasnt sure if she liked that idea. Besides, he was so strong and healthy that one part of her didnt want him to know of her weakness.

Jerkily she glanced down at her watch. Ive kept you too long. Youll be late for your appointments.

Robert had completely forgotten the time, a rarity for him. But, then, he reasoned as he reluctantly consulted his own watch, this woman was a rarity, too. There was something about her . But she was on her feet, slinging the braided leather straps of her bag over her shoulder.

Thank you for the apple, and for your time, she murmured hurriedly. Good luck with your work

Wait! He gently grasped her wrist when she began to move off. I, uh, will I see you again?

I dont know. Maybe someday when Im in town . She had to leave. Now! Those gray eyes of his were more intent than ever, and the urgency she felt had little to do with her medical condition. He was attractive, companionable, charming. It wouldnt do for her to develop a crush on her doctor even before she sought him out as such!

But when will that be? Robert asked. He was on his feet as well, unfortunately looking at her back as she hurried away. Iwait!

He was too late, and there were any number of curious eyes watching him. With great dignity, he sat back down in his chair and forced himself to eat his pudding. He knew he was running behind schedule, but he needed to understand what had just happened.

Hed met a woman, a lovely young woman, who had evoked his curiosity as no other had in fifteen years. She was quiet. Yes, shed had her moments of nervousness, but there had been something serene about her. She was alone in the world, and vulnerable, hed guess. And he didnt buy the reasons shed given him for coming to the medical center, so there was that little bit of a challenge, of mystery about her.

Would he see her again? That was in her hands. Hell, he didnt even know her name!

THAT FACT bothered him most as the next weeks passed. He was as busy as ever, putting in fourteen-hour daysat the hospital and then working at home, reviewing cases, charting treatment plans, weighing the pros and cons of recommending surgery for one patient or another. He flew to North Carolina to deliver a seminar at Duke, and returned, as always, to a backlog. But he didnt mind. He loved his work. Still, in the wee hours between work and sleep, or at odd times during meals or the commute to his Woodbridge home, hed think of her and curse himself for not having gotten her name.

After two weeks had passed, he nonchalantly questioned his secretary.

Helen, you havent by chance received a call from a woman in Chester, have you?

Helen OGrady had been with him since hed come to Yale six years before. She was in her late fifties, soft-spoken and competent, a widow with three grown children. If she tended to treat him on occasion like one of her childrenreminding him to get lunch or a haircut or a good nights resthe indulged her. She was sweet, kind in her pampering, and he rather liked it.

Not that I know of, she answered cautiously. Whats her name?

He feigned interest in the letters shed just handed him to sign. I dont know. I only know shes from Chester.

Is she a referral?

Not.

A doctor?

Uh-uh.

Helen nodded once and Robert suddenly wished hed said nothing. He didnt like the way she was looking at him. Shes just someone I ran into at a lecture several weeks ago, he murmured with a shrug, annoyed that hefelt he had to offer an explanation. Turning, he headed for his office. If she calls, let me know.

He was behind his desk before Helen could do more than nod again, and he quickly immersed himself in paperwork. Later that night, though, when he was lying in bed, he thought again about the nameless woman. From the first hed sensed that there was something on her mind. Hed shanghaied her into having lunchor an apple, as it turned outso that he might put her at ease and, in so doing, free her from whatever fear it was that kept her mission a secret.

Hed failed. Shed fled from him cloaked in the same apprehension that had surrounded her when shed stood nervously in the hall outside the conference room. Circumstance had dictated that his initial interest in her be professional, but as the few minutes theyd spent together grew more and more remote in time, what lingered in his mind was far removed from medicine.

He was intrigued that whoever-she-was had aroused his personal interest. If for no other reason, he wanted to see her again to decide if her elusiveness was the sole basis of his fascination.

So, one week later, he again broached the topic with Helen. He was careful to precede the question with several medical ones, to sound appropriately formal and businesslike.

No call from Chester. He made it more a statement than a question. It wouldnt do to have Helen think he was waiting expectantly for the call.

From Chester? She hesitated for a minute, just long enough for him to betray himself by raising hopeful eyes. Not yet . Is she someone special?

How can I know that if I dont even know her name? he asked gruffly, thinking that Helen OGrady saw far too much.

Very easily, Helen answered.

He glared at her. And just what is that grin supposed to mean?

If anything, the grin broadened, but she simply shrugged.

Come on, Helen. Somethings going on here. Id like to know what it is.

So would I.

Robert rolled his eyes. Okay. He sighed. Tell me what youre thinking in as many words as you want. It was a joke between them. Ever efficient, Helen never wasted Roberts time with unnecessary conversation. If she had a message to give, she gave it succinctly. If she had a question to ask, she was direct and to the point. Only with Roberts permission did she give free reign to her tongue.

And hed given permission now. Ive been working with you for six years now, Dr. McCrae, and I can decipher your moods nearly as easily as your handwriting. Even before you say a word I can tell when youve had a run-in with a cocky intern, when youve won a round with the men in the boardroom, when youve lost a patient. She cocked her head. This time the looks newat least for you. And its about time.

Whaddya mean, its about time? Robert drawled, more curious now than angry. Though hed never taken it to heart, hed been aware of hospital gossip. He was alternately thought of as the man of steel, the granite fortress, or the Hippocratic monk.

Helen sent him a chiding look. Six years, and this is the very first time youve shown any sign of interest in a woman.

Sign of interest? I simply asked if shed called!

Twice now youve asked, each time trying to look as though you couldnt care less, but I know you. Her voice lowered in soft urging. You really should date, Rob. You work far too hard.

But I love my work.

Sure you do. But your work is a possessive lover. Dont you think theres more to life? Ive seen you leaving here headed for cocktail receptions honoring a trustee or a major donor, and I cant help but think how nice it would be if you had a woman on your arm, a woman to lead you away after an hour and take your mind off the hospital.

Youve been watching General Hospital on the sly, he teased, and drew an imaginary bow across an imaginary violin.

Helen smiled, but sadly this time. Youre wasting it, you know, all that youth and energy. And dont tell me that the hospital benefits from it, because theres so much in you that you could easily divert a little to your personal life and the hospital would never even notice.

Lips quirking on the fringe of a smile, Robert arched a brow. Is that all, Mother?

Silence resettled over her as she studied him a minute longer. Then she dropped her gaze to his tie and stared with such intensity that Robert glanced down.

Oh-oh, he murmured, curving the tie up to examine it. I did it again. Spattered antiseptic. Another trip to the dry cleaners. Shaking his head in dismay, he retreatedto his office, deferring the rest of the official questions he had for Helen.

ANOTHER WEEK PASSED and there was no call from Chester. Robert began to ask himself why he was waiting. She hadnt said shed call. She hadnt said shed see him again.

Maybe. That was the word shed used. It wasnt good enough for him.

He knew two basic facts about her: she lived alone in Chester and she made handbags. Briefly he contemplated driving to Chester and asking around. It was a small town. Chances were good that someone would know about the lady who sold handbags to Neiman-Marcus.

But he hated to do that. It seemed an invasion of her privacy. So he was left with one other course of action.

Leaving the hospital at noon on Saturday, he drove into New York, parked and made his way to Bloomingdales. He knew he was taking a chance; shed clearly said that she limited the number of bags she supplied to larger department stores. It was possible that hed find nothing remotely similar to the bag hed seen. But it was worth a shot, he reasoned, and it was certainly a different way for him to spend his afternoon.

Hed barely approached the handbag counter, when a young saleswoman offered to help him. Uh, no, he said with a sheepish smile, Im just looking. For a full fifteen minutes he surveyed every bag, from those on freestanding racks to those displayed on the counter to those in enclosed cases. Shadowed by the silent saleswoman, he was beginning to feel slightly foolish, when at last he saw something that looked familiar. With effusive praisefor his taste, the saleswoman removed the bag from its glass case. It turned out to be Italian-made, with a well-known designers label stitched inside. When he shook his head, the saleswoman seemed even more disappointed than he, so he dared a description of what he was looking for. She brightened, led him to another case, removed a bag. Again Robert shook his head. Not even close.

Will you be getting more things in soon? he asked.

Not like these. Its the end of the spring season. Within the next month the fall things will start arriving.

Fall? But its only June!

She gave him a sympathetic smile. After the Fourth of July its fall in here. So if its a spring bag you want

No. No, thanks. I guess Ill wait. Thanks for your help. Forcing a smile, he moved off, wondering where next to turn. The nearest Neiman-Marcus was in Westchester, but there were plenty of boutiques in Manhattan. He tried to remember the names his mystery lady had mentioned, but drew a blank. Boutiques, he mused wryly, werent his specialty.

Swallowing his pride, he retraced his steps to the handbag counter and the young woman whod helped him moments before. Apologetically he explained that he was trying to locate the maker of the particular type of bag hed described and that hed been told that in addition to Bloomingdales, the bag was sold in various boutiques. Could she possibly suggest a few chic shops where he might look?

She could and did, and he rewarded her with his brightest smile. He never saw her answering blush or the admiring way she stared after him as he headed out the door and down Third Avenue.

One boutique, then another and a thirdno luck. Having exhausted the suggestions the young woman had made, he was about to return to his car and head for Westchester, when he saw it. Slung over the shoulder of a willowy mannequin, it had the same braided straps, though in silk rather than leather, the same pieced fabric, though in linen rather than calfskin. Different size. Different shape. Different needlepoint design. But it was distinct.

Eagerly he entered the small boutique. He didnt have to glance at a single price tag to know that both the clothes and accessories were from exclusive fashion houses, and he found himself curiously proud of his mystery lady.

May I help you?

Yes, please. The handbag in your window the white linen one with the needlework on the front?

Ah, yes. Its the last one left. Would you like to see it?

Please. He waited patiently while the woman leaned into the front window and slid the bag from the mannequins shoulder. When she returned with it, he took it in his hands and immediately broke into a smile. There was a feel to itor was the feeling inside him? He wasnt sure, but whatever it was, it was warm and soft and familiar. He turned the bag in his hands, then released the inner snap, never once fearing that hed find a haughty foreign name inside.

Heather, he read from the simple but elegant label. Heather. It was perfect. It was her. He looked up. Do you know Heather?

Personally, no. Our buyer does, though. Shes been dealing with Heather for several years now.

Have you ever met her?

No. She doesnt come into the shop, or if she does, its without identifying herself.

Mysterious lady, he thought again. I understand she lives in Connecticut.

Uh-huh. She works out of her house and makes each one of the bags by hand. We cant seem to keep them in stock. They sell as soon as they arrive. The only reason this ones still here is that it added so much to the window display that we refused to sell it. But the window dressers coming to change the display on Monday, so if youd like this bag, its yours.

Robert drew his wallet from the inner pocket of his blazer. Id very much like it. Id also like to know a little more about Heather, though.

For the first time the saleswoman grew wary. Im not sure I can tell you anything more.

Aware of her hesitance and its possible cause, he smiled. Im not trying to steal her away from you. My interest is strictly nonprofessional. When the woman continued to eye him cautiously, he went further. The fact of the matter is that I met a woman several weeks ago. I never got her name, but in the course of the discussion she mentioned that she was from Chester and that she made handbags. I saw the one she was carrying, and I knew the bag in your window had to be hers. Idreally like to get in touch with her. If you could just tell me her last name

Im afraid I cant do that. I dont know it myself, and even if I did I doubt I should turn it over to you. If Heather values her privacy, it wouldnt be fair.

I understand that, but this is important. I assure you Im no crackpot. He tugged his hospital identification from his wallet. The name is Robert McCrae. Im the chief of cardiology at Yale-New Haven.

The womans eyes widened. Is there a medical problem?

No, no. Its strictly personal. He gave a beseeching smile. Id really like to find Heather. Isnt there something you can do for me?

He never knew whether it was his woeful tale, his pleading smile, his hospital ID, or his reputable appearance that convinced the woman. But she excused herself, went into the back room and made a phone call, then returned with the information he wanted.

The next morning, shortly after ten, Heather looked up from where she sat beneath the old apple tree to find Dr. Robert McCrae strolling across her yard.

STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART. Copyright 1986 by Barbara Delinsky.

Barbara Delinsky is a New York Times bestselling author with more than thirty million copies of her books in print. She has been published in twenty-five languages worldwide. A lifelong New Englander, Barbara earned a B.A. in Psychology at Tufts University and an M.A. in Sociology at Boston College. Barbara enjoys knitting, photography, and cats. She also loves to interact with her readers through her website at www.barbaradelinsky.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bdelinsky, and on Twitter as @BarbaraDelinsky.