Front Porch Promises #2
December 6, 2016
Indie Published
Available in: e-Book, Trade Size (reprint)

A Love to Call Mine

When research scientist Max Reynolds is diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, his oncology nurse is meddlesome Heather Watson, who destroyed his hope of marrying the woman he loved.

Heather Watson finds a challenge in guiding her friend’s neglectful ex-boyfriend through his fight against the disease.

To their surprise, romantic sparks fly between them. But Max faces a critical health decision, and Heather must meddle one last time, risking her heart on a long shot chance to give Max a future, with or without her. Will he win his battle with cancer only to lose a chance at love?

Originally published October 2016 in eBook.

Chapter One

“Do I have a terrible disease?” The words tumbled from Max Reynolds’s mouth as he sat alone in the exam room and stared at the pale-yellow walls. Even the supposedly cheerful color failed to cheer him up today. Instead, the hue sent up a caution signal. What would the doctor have to say?

Bad news?

It had to be bad, or the office coordinator wouldn’t have called him to come in immediately after the doctor received the results of Max’s recent medical tests.

For months he’d been dealing with a series of maladies, including rashes, night sweats and a cough. All previous appointments with doctors had resulted in a diagnosis followed by a prescription that cleared up each problem temporarily. He hadn’t been concerned until he’d unexpectedly lost ten pounds in the last two months and a painful cough had reoccurred.

This time—no prescription, only tests followed by an urgent phone call. He took a deep breath, then let it out in a harsh rush of air. He hated the uncertainty. He hated the vulnerability. Most of all, he hated the waiting. Why were they making him wait when they had insisted he come in right away?

Maybe he should leave. He’d been to enough doctors—doctors who had done little for him. Why should this doctor be any different? Max stood, but as he took a step, he heard a muffled conversation outside the door. He returned to his seat as the doctor walked into the room, a stethoscope dangling around his neck.

Dr. Vargas immediately pulled up a chair and sat facing Max. “I have bad news. Your test results show that you have lymphoma. Hodgkin lymphoma.”

The word lymphoma sliced through Max’s mind. He couldn’t speak while a sinking sensation filled his gut. He swallowed hard.

Cancer.

How could he have cancer? At twenty-seven, he was too young…but that wasn’t true. Cancer was no respecter of age. He’d spent the last four years working in labs and looking at other people’s cancer cells through a microscope—people of all ages and occupations. Cancer could change a person’s life in an instant.

His moment had come.

The young physician’s face blurred. His black hair seemed to float above his head like a wig. Max tried to focus, but everything remained distorted as the doctor talked. Max heard “cancer” again, but everything else buzzed in his head like static on a radio dial.

“I’m not an oncologist, but I’ll get you an appointment with one. We’ll do whatever it takes to fight this thing.” The doctor’s last sentence penetrated Max’s foggy mind.

Max nodded, still unable to speak. His mouth felt as though he’d poked it full of the cotton balls that sat in a jar on the nearby counter.

“I know it must be a shock to learn of this diagnosis, but like I said, we’ll get you through this.” His dark eyes filled with concern, Dr. Vargas touched Max’s arm. “Max, do you understand what I’ve told you?”

Max shook his head as much to clear it as to answer the doctor’s question. “I’m a research scientist in the oncology field. I know about cancer, but I’m not familiar with all therapies.”

“Where do you work?”

Max swallowed another lump in his throat. “I work in the cancer research department of Oakton General Hospital in conjunction with their clinical trials.”

“Then you aren’t a complete stranger to the process that goes with cancer treatments.”

“I don’t know much about lymphoma.”

“Let’s get you an appointment with someone who’s an expert.” Dr. Vargas stood. “Come with me to my office.”

Max followed the doctor down a hallway with doors on either side, until they reached the one at the end of the hall. Dr. Vargas opened it and motioned for Max to take the chair next to the desk. The doctor used his desk phone to make the call.

With a hand to his forehead, Max slouched in the chair. He’d only moved to Massachusetts a few months ago. All his previous appointments had been with doctors in Montana or Washington. Most of his time in Massachusetts had been spent at work, and he’d made few attempts to forge friendships in his new location. He rented a studio apartment in a house not too far from work so he could walk. On a couple of occasions he’d gone out to eat with some of his coworkers, but most of them had families—spouses and kids. He didn’t have much in common with them except work.

Alone. That’s what he was. Here alone to face this terrible disease.

His mother and his adopted father lived clear across the country near Spokane, Washington. Another problem. How was he going to break the news to his mom? How would she take it? Bad news shouldn’t have to come over the phone, but there was no other way.

“You’ve got an appointment on Monday with Dr. Joseph Duffey, who is a lymphoma specialist.” Dr. Vargas pushed a card across the desk. “Here is his information—time of the appointment and address of the clinic.”

The doctor’s statement shook Max from his troubling thoughts. “Thanks. I appreciate finding out what’s actually wrong with me.”

Dr. Vargas nodded. “I’ll monitor your progress through Dr. Duffey’s office. I know you can beat this.”

Trying to smile, Max stood despite the great weight that seemed to press down on him. He shook the physician’s hand. “I hope you’re right.”

“I have great confidence in Dr. Duffey. He’s an excellent doctor.”

“Good to know.” Max turned toward the door but stopped before he went out. “Thanks again.”

Shrugging into his jacket, Max rushed out of the office as if he could distance himself from the disturbing diagnosis. Once outside, he stopped and closed his eyes, wanting it to be a bad dream. But making impossible wishes wasn’t going to change the truth of his circumstances.

When he opened his eyes, he glimpsed his reflection in the window of the nearby building. He stared at it for a moment.

A healthy-looking young man gazed back at him, but the image lied.

He ran a hand through his hair. He’d been intending to get it cut. The treatment for his cancer would mean the loss of his hair. No need to worry about a haircut now.

What would become of his reason for moving to Massachusetts? He’d come here to find his father’s family—the father he’d never known. Would the treatments render him too tired to pursue that goal? He hoped not.

As he walked toward his car, Max tried to take a deep breath, but the pressure in his chest didn’t subside. Half of this attitude was probably psychological. He hadn’t come into the doctor’s office with that feeling. Worry, yes. A depressing burden, no.

Now he had both.

***

“Hey, Heather, hubby and I are going out to dinner on Friday. How would you like to double with us? I can fix you up with the guy that works with my husband. I know he’d be perfect for you.” Emma Butler joined Heather Watson at the table in their favorite fast-food lunch spot.

Heather grimaced as she picked up her sandwich and took a bite, hoping to avoid talking about her friend’s insistence on setting up blind dates.

“Well, what do you say?” Emma’s blue eyes brimmed with expectation.

Heather frowned at Emma. “Will you quit trying to find dates for me? So far you’ve convinced me to go out with your mechanic, your hairdresser’s brother and the guy who lives down the street. None of them were perfect for me.”

“But this guy’s different.” Emma bobbed her head, her shoulder-length blond hair swishing around her shoulders.

Heather shook her head. “I think that’s what you said when you fixed me up with your neighbor, and you know how that worked out.”

Emma grinned sheepishly. “Yeah. That was a mistake. I didn’t know he was such a jerk.”

“I’d say a big jerk.” Heather reached into her purse and rummaged through it until she held up a piece of paper in triumph. “Just for you. This might help you avoid future mistakes.”

“What’s this?” Emma took the paper and studied it, then looked up at Heather. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m very serious.”

Emma waved the paper in the air. “A list of qualifications for the perfect man? You’ll never find him.”

“Good. Then maybe you’ll quit trying to fix me up.” Heather took another bite of her sandwich.

“This piece of paper isn’t going to stop me from trying to find you a man.”

“And why would I need one of those?”

“Because I want you to be as happy as Ryan and me.”

“Did you ever think I might be happy just the way I am? Single.”

Emma blew out a harsh breath and frowned. “Haven’t you ever heard the expression, ‘two is better than one’?”

“Debatable, but if you happen to find someone who meets all the qualifications on my list, I’ll be happy to meet him.”

Why did all of her coworkers insist on trying to find her dates? Did she look desperate? Did they feel sorry for her because she sat home alone on Saturday nights watching rented movies and eating microwave popcorn?

Emma finished the last of her fries, then grinned. “I’ll be sure to work on it. You’ve given me a challenge I can’t resist.”

Heather refused to comment. Her efforts to change Emma’s mind were a failure. Head down, Heather decided she should eat and say nothing.

“Over six feet tall?”

Heather glanced up. “Yeah, since I’m five feet ten, I’d like for the guy to be at least a couple of inches taller than me.”

“Dark-brown eyes and hair?”

“Yeah. What about it?” Heather wrinkled her brow.

Emma continued to study the paper. “Interesting that you’re looking for a guy with the same color eyes and hair as you.”

“Quit reading the list.” Heather wadded up the wrapper that had come on her sandwich and dumped it on the tray with the discarded napkins and paper cup.

“You gave it to me, and I want to know exactly what I’m looking for.”

“As you said, you’ll never find him, so why bother?” Heather stood and grabbed her jacket from the back of the chair. “We’d better get back to work. Lots of patients to see this afternoon.”

“Trying to avoid discussing your list?” Emma gathered her things and followed Heather to the trash bin by the door.

“I am. I wish I’d never shown it to you. So let’s drop it.”

“Okay.” Emma pushed open the door and patted her purse. “I won’t talk about it now, but I’ve got it right here for reference.”

Heather squinted against the sun and wished again that she’d never mentioned the list. She hurried down the sidewalk as if walking fast could put some distance between her and that silly thing. Time for a change of subject. “I’ve got a challenge for you.”

“And that is…” Emma looked at Heather expectantly.

“Join me in training for the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge. Come be part of our team.”

Emma wrinkled her brow. “How do you expect me to join the team when you’ve been training for weeks and I haven’t?”

“You could always ride in the car on the first day and join us on your bike during the last day. We have a fun time, especially on Saturday evening when we’re camping out.”

“Camping? Not for me.” Emma shook her head. “Besides, what good would my being part of the team do?”

“You’d be raising money for cancer research.”

Emma slowed her pace. “Even if I don’t do the whole ride?”

“Yeah. I’d love to have you on the team. We’re all riding to support Hailey, our Pedal Partner.” The image of the cute little seven-year-old popped into Heather’s mind. “And many of us are riding in memory of someone we’ve lost to cancer.”

Emma sighed. “I do want to support Hailey. She’s the sweetest little girl and a real inspiration—always happy, even when you know she’s hurting.”

“And you can reach a circle of family and friends that the rest of us can’t. That’s what’s so great about our team. Our outreach is tremendous. I have family and friends in Montana, and you have family and friends in Ohio and Indiana.”

“You’re right, but I’ll have to think about it.” Emma skewed up her face. “After all, I’m not very athletic, and you are. But maybe all that bicycling will take off some of these extra pounds.”

Heather didn’t want to make Emma feel bad by agreeing with her about the extra weight she carried. What could she say that wouldn’t hurt her friend’s feelings? “Why don’t you recruit Ryan for the team, too? Then we can all get fit together.”

Emma appeared thoughtful, then smiled as they reached the clinic. “You’ve almost convinced me. I’ll talk to Ryan tonight.”

“Fantastic.” Heather held open the door for Emma as they went inside. “I want to surpass the amount of money we raised last year.”

“A worthy goal, but what about the project to create housing for the families of cancer patients? Aren’t you trying to raise funds for that, too? I would think you’re spreading yourself too thin.”

“I’ve been doing the PMC for several years. I don’t want to stop now just because I have another project. I’m determined to make this the best year ever for PMC and the housing project.”

Emma shook her head. “I don’t know. It sounds like you’re taking on too much to me. I wish I had your energy.”

“I have lots of helpers. We’ve almost raised enough funds to buy the property, but someone else has put in an offer that’s better than ours. So we have to match it, or we lose.”

“Do you have a deadline?”

“Ninety days.”

“Do you think you can do it by then?”

“I’ve got lots of people working to make it happen.”

“Sure hope you reach your goal.”

“Me, too.” Heather stopped at the nurses’ station and gathered her paperwork. “Is Mr. Murray coming in today? I love his crazy jokes.”

Emma nodded. “He is. I wonder what gems he’ll have for us today.”

“I wish all the patients could have his outlook.”

“I know, but cancer is a hard disease to deal with. I hate that the treatments often make people feel worse.” Emma sighed. “Sometimes I question why I work as an oncology nurse.”

“I try to remember the good results and not the bad.”

“Do you ever think about changing jobs?”

Heather frowned. “Why? Are you considering getting a different one?”

Emma shrugged. “Ryan hates to see me down, and you know I get down when we lose a patient.”

“But doctors and nurses have to deal with life and death.” Heather remembered sitting by her beloved grandfather’s bedside while he battled kidney cancer. She’d become an oncology nurse because of him.

“I know, but I’ve been thinking I should get a job at a doctor’s office—”

“You wouldn’t like it. Besides, we need you at the clinic.” Heather patted Emma’s shoulder.

Emma smiled. “Thanks for saying that. I guess I’m a little down after sweet Audrey Lipscomb died.”

Heather nodded. “That was sad, but let’s hope Mr. Murray has some really funny jokes that will cheer us up today.”

“Okay.”

Heather waved a hand toward the window that looked out on the town square. “We can’t be sad on such a glorious spring day. A perfect New England day—not a cloud in the sky and blossoms everywhere.”

“You’re right. I should look at the good things around me.”

“Besides, since you’re going to join our PMC team, you can ride in memory of Audrey.”

“You’re making it really hard for me to say no.”

“That was my intention.” Heather chuckled. “Now back to work. I’ve got a full load this afternoon and a new patient.”

“New patients always make the day interesting.” Emma led the way down the hall and stopped in front of one of the exam rooms. “Good luck with your new patient.”

“Thanks.” Heather continued walking as she flipped open the new patient’s file. The name at the top made her stop midstep.

Maxwell Reynolds. Age twenty-seven.

Heather stared at the closed door in front of her. The name had to be a coincidence. The Max Reynolds she knew lived in Montana, and she didn’t even know whether his full name was Maxwell.

No. She shook her head. Couldn’t be.

Only one way to find out. Heather knocked.

“Come in.” The male voice on the other side of the door didn’t sound familiar. Or did it?

Heather turned the knob and let the door swing open. Her mouth went dry. Max Reynolds—Max Reynolds from Montana—sat on the exam table.

Pale, thin and frowning, he stared at her. “What are you doing here?”

Heather didn’t miss the annoyed surprise in his tone. While his brown eyes, filled with worry, continued to gaze at her, Heather couldn’t help remembering Emma’s reaction to the eye and hair color on “the list.” Max had dark-brown hair, too.

She had to quit thinking about the ridiculous itemization of traits for the perfect man. As Emma pointed out, he didn’t exist. And despite Max’s physical appearance, nothing else about him fit Heather’s wish list.

Other than being thinner, he appeared much that same as he had when he’d been dating her former roommate. He was still a handsome man. Max and Brittany had broken up just weeks before Heather had moved to Massachusetts. He’d been a lousy boyfriend for her friend. He’d make a dreadful boyfriend for anyone. But she couldn’t dwell on that. She was here to help him through this difficult diagnosis, and she would do her best.

Finally, she managed a smile. “I’m going to be your nurse.”

***

“Isn’t that just wonderful!” Anger bubbled up inside of Max. How was he going to deal with Heather Watson? What was God trying to tell him? First the cancer. Now a nightmare of a nurse. His own “Nurse Ratched,” wearing a blue smock.

Heather was the last person he’d expected to see here. The last person he wanted to be around while he battled cancer. The last person he wanted to help him through this troubled time. Could he request another nurse?

“I’m glad you feel that way. This is a surprise.”

“Yeah. Not exactly how I would choose to meet again.” Max had never dreamed of seeing her another time. He couldn’t help noticing the way her mouth quivered a little while she tried to ignore his sarcasm. Maybe he wouldn’t have to request a new nurse after all. Maybe she would take herself off his case.

“Well, here we are. Renewing old acquaintances.” Her back to him as she spoke, she set a folder on the nearby counter. “We have some catching up to do.”

Was she serious? When she turned to look at him, she smiled again. Maybe she was serious, but he didn’t want to catch up with her for any reason. “I suppose.”

Heather busied herself with a computer-like instrument sitting on a cart next to the exam table. “But that’s not why you’re here.”

That was an understatement. Was she trying to make him feel at ease, or was he just edgy about everything right now?

He had to get a better attitude. She was here to help him. How ironic. In his mind, she’d been his adversary. He’d always put most of the blame for the demise of his relationship with Brittany squarely in Heather’s lap. She’d made it abundantly clear to him that she thought he was inconsiderate, self-centered and a loser. She’d convinced Brittany that she would be better off without him.

Guess Heather was right. Brittany had married someone else. That someone else just happened to be Heather’s uncle. She’d wasted no time introducing them after Brittany had broken up with him.

How was he going to look at Heather without thinking of Brittany? Lowering his head, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Wishing Brittany was back in his life would do him no good. He had to move on, but he’d been trying to do that for over two years. He hadn’t been very successful.

“Are you okay?”

Max looked up. “Yeah, just thinking about what lies ahead.”

“Well, I’m here to help you deal with all of this. Now I have a few preliminary things to go over before Dr. Duffey joins us.”

“Sure. What’s on the agenda?”

“First, I’m going to get all your vital signs.”

Max remained stoic while Heather performed all the necessary tests—the same things he’d gone through every time he’d stepped into a doctor’s office in recent months. But this time, he knew what was wrong. Knowing was part relief and part anxiety.

When Heather finished, she logged information into the computer, then turned to him. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with Dr. Duffey.”

“Okay.” Max watched Heather exit the room, her dark-brown hair swinging just above her shoulders. She was wearing it longer these days. He liked it a lot better than that short spiky hairdo she used to have. He shook his head. Why was he even thinking about it?

He had more important things to consider. He still hadn’t talked to his mother. He’d used the excuse that he wanted to get this appointment behind him so he’d know what lay ahead. Then he could tell her about the planned treatments. Would that ease her mind? He doubted it. How could he ease her mind when he couldn’t ease his own?

A knock on the door interrupted Max’s deliberations. “Come in.”

Heather entered, followed by a tall, broad-shouldered man with thick gray hair and a comforting smile. The man extended his hand. “Hello. I’m Dr. Duffey, and I’ll be monitoring your treatment.”

While the doctor and Heather went over his treatment options, projected timeline and preliminary tests, Max tried to put aside his worry and focus on what they were telling him. Did all cancer patients have this panic build up inside of them?

When they finished, the doctor turned to Heather. “Ms. Watson will be your advocate throughout this process. You’re in good hands. She’ll take excellent care of you. After we get back the preliminary tests, we’ll have a better idea about your treatment.”

Max nodded, but he really wanted to stand up and shout. How can she take good care of me when she doesn’t even like me? But he sat there with his mouth clamped shut. This wasn’t the time to get emotional and lose his composure. He’d already spent the days, between his appointment with Dr. Vargas and today’s appointment, letting the anxiety build until he thought he might lash out at someone—anyone who was nearby. So far he’d managed to keep things under control.

“We’re all a team, and we’re going to help you beat this cancer.” Dr. Duffey shook Max’s hand again. “Ms. Watson will finish giving you more information and help you find the support groups you need.”

The doctor left, and Max wished he could leave, too. He wasn’t sure he was ready to grapple with this disease or his discomfort with Heather. Did he dare mention the old animosity? He had to do it. There was no other way.

But Heather didn’t wait for Max to speakAlex. “Okay, we have a lot of things to talk about. First—”

“First, let’s clear up the past.”

“The past?”

“Yeah, the way you came between Brittany and me.”

Heather sighed, but still looked him right in the eye. “Max, would you prefer that another nurse be assigned to your case? If so, I’m sure we can make a switch.”

There it was. She was handing him the chance to get rid of her—his nemesis. So why did he hesitate? Was he crazy, or only mixed up because of his fear? “You don’t have to do that, but I didn’t want our bad history to sit there like the so-called elephant in the room. I don’t want another nurse.”

Had he just said that? Had he passed up the option to switch nurses? Cancer must already be affecting his thought processes, because there shouldn’t be anything comforting about Heather’s presence. But despite his ill feelings toward her, she was someone familiar—someone who shared part of his past in this strange place. He needed some familiarity. Oddly enough, he needed her.

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