From America's beloved storyteller, Barbara Delinsky, comes a classic novel of one lovesick doctor and the woman who makes his heart ache with desire...
As the head of cardiology at New Haven Medical Center, Dr. Robert McCrae knows a lot about the human heart. But it's not until he spots Heather Cole's beautiful face at one of his lectures that he realizes how much more he needs to learn. From the moment he sees her, his heart skips a beat--metaphorically speaking--and his pulse rate soars. It turns out that Heather is a local hand-bag designer who's not just playing doctor; she's putting her heart on the line. Rob may be the only one who can help. But first she'll have to trust him--and take a risk on falling in love...
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
May 28, 2012
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Excerpt from Straight from the Heart by Barbara Delinsky
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 she'd been able to gain entrance without identification or commitment, found an unobtrusive resting spot against the rear wall.
Every seat was filled--not that she really wanted to sit. She wasn't 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 she'd received had said. She wondered which one was Robert McCrae. In her mind, she'd 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 Heather's speculation, and one of the female speakers rose from her chair and approachedthe podium. When she began to discuss arterial disease, Heather, who'd 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 men--which 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 he'd reached forty, she would have been surprised. Though there was a sternness about him--a hardness along his jaw, across the bridge of his nose--there 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? She'd 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 McCrae's optimistic tone as by the dreamlike images that flitted through her mind. A husband--children--her 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 she'd 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 couldn't look to them for encouragement one way or another. She was alone, and the responsibility for her action--or inaction--weighed heavily on her mind.
Anxious to relieve the burden as she'd 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, she'd been at the stores when they'd first opened. She'd 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 she'd 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. She'd 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 she'd 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. She'd been urged to expand, to take on help and double her volume, but she'd resisted, convinced that the very scarcity of her bags was an integral part of their appeal.
She'd 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 didn't have an eye for the market as she did. And it was no wonder! She'd daydreamed over high-fashion magazines for years, so a feel for style was second nature to her. And now that she'd 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 didn't want to get lost, she returned the way she'd 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 didn't 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 wasn't 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 he'd 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 couldn't 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 wasn't enough to make her look away.
She shouldn't 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 wasn't too late, she realized, her heart thudding softly against her breast. No one knew she was here. No one would have to know. She'd simply leave before anything happened and forget that she'd ever come.
Robert McCrae knew the instant she straightened from the guardrail. He'd originally thought she was waiting for someone, but then he'd caught the nervous way shewas looking at him. Looking, looking away, looking again. He'd seen her inside the conference room, standing against the back wall, leaving soon after he'd finished speaking. He didn't 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 who'd 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 she'd 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 who'd 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 didn't know that, she reasoned. Of course, she had no idea that guilt was written all over her face.
Robert couldn't miss it. He chanced a small smile. "That's too bad. I was really in need of an escape from the group back there." His hand hadn't left her arm, and very subtly he urged her into step alongside him. "Where are you headed?"
"I, uh, I'm 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 doctor's would be. She thought of the approachability she'd 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 can't," Heather answered breathlessly. "I'd like to get home before the traffic mounts up."
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."
"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 McCrae's 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 today's lectures. They sounded interesting, and since I was in the neighborhood ..."
Robert was tempted to remind her that she'd left soon after he'd finished speaking and that, though she claimed to be wary of traffic, she'd 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. "I'm afraid we didn't 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 today's are usually open. You must be on our mailing list."
She didn't look at him, but she couldn't 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. That's more than most do."
She looked up at him in surprise. "I always read them." Indeed, there were certain articles she'd 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. "We're living at a time of great optimism. That's 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 she'd 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 didn't quite pull away.
"Twenty minutes. That's all I ask." This time his chuckle was a rueful one. "That's all I have, actually. I've got an afternoon packed with appointments, but it's been a long time since breakfast and I could use a little something. Keep me company. Please?"
"But you'll want to be talking with other doctors--"
"I talk with other doctors all the time. It's not everyday that I get a chance to talk with a craftswoman."
"But I really don't 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 didn't argue further. For one thing, she didn't want to make a scene. For another, surprisingly, she didn't want to leave. Not yet, at least. Now that she'd 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 you'll 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 she'd 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 don't drink coffee. Too much caffeine."
He folded his long frame into the seat opposite her. "Wise lady. Yogurt, an apple, no caffeine--I 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. It's been a long day already and it's far from over."
"What time do you start?"
"In the morning? I'm usually here by six."
"And you finish up ... ?"
"Somewhere between seven and eight at night."
Heather's eyes grew round in appreciation. "That's 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 body's 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. "Heartbreaking--you mean when a patient doesn't 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 wouldn't have had a chance if they hadn't come to us. It's truly miraculous what we're 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 she'd 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 lay people who attend lectures such as today's have specific reasons for doing so, most often a sick friend or relative. They're 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 you're 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?"
"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 she'd never marketed her bags herself. Each one was dear to her heart, its creation something akin, she imagined, to giving birth. She didn't 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 didn't 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?"
"You're 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."
"I'll say--not that I'm an expert on handbags. Where do you sell them?"
She named several boutiques in New York City. "Neiman-Marcus and Bloomingdale's carry them, too, but on a limited basis. I can only make so many a week."
He looked at the bag a final time before returning it to her. "Unbelievable. It must keep you busy. You have assistants, don't you?"
"Nope. Just me."
"And you make twenty bags like this in a week? I'd think the handwork on one alone would take days."
"It's not so bad, actually. The basic patterns for a week's 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. It's very relaxing." And tailor-made for her. Minimal physical exertion, minimal psychological stress.
"Sounds it." But he was homing in on what she hadn't said. "Then you don't have a family? A husband?"
After a split second's 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. "I'm surprised."
He took another bite of his sandwich, then shrugged. "I don't 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. "You're the right age. You're 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."
"I'm divorced," he said without pause. "You're right. My work is far less yielding. That's pretty much what broke the marriage up."
Though he didn't seem in any pain, she felt instantly contrite. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't 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, it's okay. My ex-wife was right when she accused me of being unfaithful. My work is my mistress, and I've never wanted it otherwise. Gail and I have been divorced for seven years. She's remarried and is much happier now. I can accept that." He paused and frowned. "What's harder to accept is that I have two children I barely know."
Heather's eyes widened. "Two children?" she breathed, more than a little envious.