Excerpt from FAMILY PRACTICE, December 2002

CHAPTER ONE

"Dr. Harper, now that your wife is in prison, what are your plans?"

Barely out of his black Jag, Michael Harper tensed his jaw, slammed the car door and shoved past a cocky reporter and a heavyset cameraman. Ever since the trial, the press continued to dog him.

Why wouldn't they leave him alone? The whole damn mess was yesterday's news, at least as far as he was concerned. He'd been cleared of any wrongdoing, Denise was in prison and their divorce had been finalized three months ago.

"Just one question, Doc. Has your practice suffered because of the scandal?"

A camera flashed in Michael's face, and he clenched his fist, fighting an urge to grab the photographic equipment and sling it to the ground. "No comment."

He strode toward the private stairwell that led from the underground parking garage to his second-floor southern California office, hoping to shake more than the dank odor of concrete, gasoline fumes and exhaust. Why the interest in him? In his practice, his life? He hadn't done anything, just been an unwitting victim.

The thought of himself as a victim turned his stomach, knotted his gut. Michael Harper, son of the Raleigh-Harpers of Boston. Distinguished graduate of Harvard Medical School. Renowned cardiovascular surgeon. His life had been charmed from birth. Perfect.

Until now.

Damn you, Denise. Michael swung open the metal door and slammed it behind him. He wasn't sure how much more of this he could take. Sure, the whole sordid mess had taken a toll on him. His former wife who had also been his office manager had carried on a lengthy affair with a high-profile politician. That was tough enough to handle.

But she'd laundered drug money through his office, then made illegal contributions to her lover's campaign. There'd been a thorough investigation, and Michael had been cleared of any wrongdoing. Still, the embarrassment was hard to live down. Hard to forgive. Impossible to forget.

The press continued to dog him, Dr. Michael Harper, who had nothing to do with any of this. Even those sleazy tabloids had found him a newsworthy topic. Apparently, the public enjoyed hearing about a wealthy surgeon cuckolded by a bad girl and a notorious politician. But quite frankly, he was ready to escape the limelight.

Forever.

When he reached his office, he unlocked the door and stepped inside. He wasn't sure why he even bothered to come in today. Habit, he supposed, but it wasn't necessary. Due in part to the depositions and trials, both federal and state, he'd cut back on his patient load until it was nearly nonexistent.

"Michael?" Bertha Williams, his office manager, asked. The woman had come out of retirement to fix the god-awful mess his ex-wife had made of his books. "Is that you?"

"Yes, it's me." Michael followed the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of an electric percolator to the break room.

In years past, Bertha had hovered over him like a mother hen, fixing him a hot lunch when he'd been too busy to eat or too concerned about a patient to realize he'd skipped a meal or two. She handed him a steaming cup of coffee, then eyed him carefully. "Did you forget to shave again? Or is that an attempt to shake your wholesome, all-American look?"

"Neither." Michael stroked the day-old bristles on his chin, then shrugged. "Maybe it's apathy."

"Humph." She clicked her tongue, crossed her arms and shook her head. "You're looking bad, Michael. Not overworked, but under too much stress."

"I'm all right, just tired of all the fuss."

Concern simmered in her hazel eyes. "You're a surgeon, dedicated to your profession and respected among your peers. I've seen you work with only an occasional game of golf as a diversion. It may have been enough in the past, but not now. I think you should consider a vacation."

A vacation? Impossible. "I need a permanent break from the press and media, but there's a host of reporters staking out my jet at the Santa Monica Airport. They're just waiting for me to show my face."

"You could take a drive up or down the coast," Bertha suggested. "Maybe find a secluded house on the beach."

Ocean breezes. Sunshine. Long, solitary, mind-cleansing walks on the sand. It sounded too good to be true. Michael shook his head. "I can't even go downstairs to the parking garage without meeting an entourage of reporters."

Bertha furrowed her gray brow and drummed her fingers on the table, then she brightened. "Take my car. It's parked out front today. Of course, it won't be at all like driving that fancy black Jaguar of yours."

Michael smiled. He doubted anyone would expect to see him drive an '89 Ford Taurus out of here. Maybe her idea had merit.

Bertha stood. "I'll get the keys. Then I'll check with Dr. Hanson about taking the few patients you have scheduled this week."

"No, I don't think it will work. I'd have to go home and pack--"

"Oh, pshaw. You've got a shaving kit and change of clothes here. And anything else can be purchased along the way. Michael, you need a break, if not a full-scale vacation. Take some time to yourself, and maybe then you'll be ready to come back to work." Bertha dug through her oversize handbag and handed him a set of keys.

Two hours later, Michael drove south on Pacific Coast Highway. He wasn't sure where he was going, but as long as the press hadn't followed him, he'd be content to watch the sun set over the ocean, maybe even try surfing again. He hadn't taken time to relax in years. He hadn't really needed to.

A small, nearly obscure sign identified the upcoming town as Harbor Haven. The name had a pleasant, out-of-the-way sound. He flipped the blinker then turned left. A haven was just what he needed, especially if it provided peace and quiet.

He passed several pastel-colored storefronts--Bailey's Bait Shop, Connie's Bookstore, and the EZ Suds Laundromat. On the other side of the street, he spotted a mom-and-pop grocery store. Harbor Haven wasn't really a town, he realized, but rather a small secluded enclave.

Down the road, a sign advertised Campbell's Seaside Cottages, and an arrow pointed to a side street on the left. Michael followed the directions until he spotted a group of quaint little beach houses, all white with latticework trim. Only a bright yellow number distinguished one from another. A pink, flashing neon sign hung in the window of the largest cottage and announced, Vacancy.

He swung into a graveled parking lot, empty except for two kids and a mixed-breed dog playing with a soccer ball. Carefully avoiding a small sandy-haired boy and an older redheaded girl, Michael pulled the Ford into a parking space.

As he turned off the ignition, he noticed the Rolex on his wrist. Not exactly sure why, he slipped off the expensive gold watch and placed it in the empty ashtray. Today, he was just a regular guy who drove an old Ford. Certainly not anyone famous or newsworthy.

As he swung open the door and stepped from the sedan, the soccer ball came flying toward his feet, resting underneath Bertha's car.

"Sorry, mister, I'm not too good at kicking yet." The little boy's soft brown eyes pleaded for understanding, and he pointed toward the broken-down fence that lined the back half of the parking lot. "The ball was s'posed to go over there."

Michael stooped to retrieve the soccer ball, then tossed it toward the boy. The girl, wearing white shorts and a pink sweatshirt, struggled to hold the dog. When their eyes met, Michael did a double take.

It was easy to see how he had mistaken the petite woman for a child--but only from a distance. Up close, her maturity struck him as obvious, and when she smiled, her wholesome beauty stunned him.

The breeze stirred the smells of salt and seashore and played havoc with her curly red hair, as did the sunlight, highlighting the color of autumn leaves and, for only a moment, reminding him of Boston. And the park where he had played as a boy.

She swatted at the springy strand that whipped across a lightly freckled nose. Large, expressive eyes, the color of the sea, enhanced a small, delicate face. She eased her hold on the dog until it lunged toward Michael with its tongue flopping. Snagging the bright yellow collar, she jerked the black overgrown puppy back. Michael wasn't sure the petite woman could control the monstrous animal, but she did.

"Gulliver," she scolded. "Behave yourself, or I'll put you in the backyard."

"I didn't mean to spoil your fun," Michael said. "As soon as I rent a cottage, I'll move the car."

"Hey, that'll make you our neighbor." The boy smiled. "I'm Eric, and this is Kara."

He hadn't meant to speak, to introduce himself. This quest had only been for solitude, a time to form a game plan of sorts. He'd toyed with the idea of relocating his practice from Los Angeles to Boston and hoped taking time off would help him decide.

When she flashed him a shy smile, warmth slowly poured over him, like aged cognac from a crystal decanter. And the words spilled out without any effort on his part. "My name's Michael."

Kara Westin nearly stumbled over the panting dog, but when she regained her footing and glanced into the amber-colored eyes of the man who'd just introduced himself, her heart jumped, and her breath caught in her throat. She wrestled the urge to gawk at the stranger standing before her.

Tall and broad-shouldered. Handsome, too. Hair, golden brown--sun-bleached, most likely. He had that lanky, water sport aficionado look. Jet skis, surf boards, sailboats.

Vacationing? she wondered. This late in the fall? The tourist season was over, which she found disappointing. A people watcher by nature, Kara missed the daily activity that provided fodder for the journal she kept.

She extended her hand in greeting before he did. "It's nice to meet you, Michael. How long will you be staying?"

"I'm not sure. A few days, maybe a week."

Kara eyed him carefully, trying to garner a sense of who her temporary neighbor might be. She found him hard to read. That, in itself, told her she should be wary. Her instincts about strangers had usually been on target. But this particular man wasn't giving her intuition very much to work with.

"Where are you from?" she asked, unable to keep herself from prying.

"A couple of hours up north. I had some time off and thought I'd just travel along the coast."

Kara, glad the dog had finally settled down, eased her hold on Gulliver's collar. "Sounds like you've got an adventurous spirit."

He slid her a half smile. "I've been accused of being staid and boring, but never adventurous."

"That's too bad." Kara wondered how a man who looked to be the epitome of outdoor fun could consider himself dull. It didn't seem possible. "Life can be tough if you can't find time to enjoy it."

"Kara's just about the most funnest person you'll ever know," Eric interjected. "She's always got a cool idea. She can make the yuckiest things kind of neat."

"I'm not into fun," Michael said. Topaz-colored eyes studied Kara a bit more intensely than she liked. It seemed as though he was trying to read her, just as she had tried with him. She found it unsettling until he turned and smiled at Eric. "I just came here to walk on the beach. Think. Have some alone time."

And then Kara saw it, that glimmer of something in his eyes that told her more about the man than he told her himself. She recognized sadness, and although he'd only allowed her a brief glimpse, it was there. She was sure of it. Michael, whoever he was, had come to Harbor Haven to ease his pain.

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