Dr. Riley Poole pressed her forehead to the rear window of her father’s SUV and stared at the pile of neatly stacked luggage. “I can’t do this,” she whispered as she fought a wave of panic and reached for her mother’s arm.
Marjory gently peeled her daughter’s fingers from her wrist. “Take a breath, dear. It’s too late to back out of the medical conference, and this is a minor hurdle compared to the ones you’ve overcome since Zach’s death.”
Riley turned and searched Marjory’s eyes, desperate to believe her. Traveling to a conference half a continent away felt more like diving off a cliff than scaling a minor hurdle.
Her father tossed her carryon onto the backseat and scratched his head. "What’s with all the suitcases? You and Julia are only going for a week."
Marjory elbowed his ribs before Riley could answer. "It’s her first time leaving Colorado in more than three years, Thomas. Julia's never been to Washington, DC. They need to be ready for any adventure."
"Then, I'll defer to your expertise, Marjory. What does a weathered old rancher know about such things?"
Thomas enjoyed passing himself off as a country bumpkin, but he was one of the most brilliant men Riley had ever known. He’d been a respected physician in the region for decades and was loved by the community. She marveled that he’d been content to leave his career and putter around their small ranch since his retirement.
Riley twisted her unruly red hair into a knot and leaned against the liftgate. “It’s Zach’s fault I always overpack. He never used to let us leave the house without preparing for Armageddon.”
“That explains the bug-out kit,” Thomas said. “You’re going to a luxury hotel, not a war zone.”
Riley gave a nervous laugh. “It’s my security blanket. Don’t judge.”
He winked, and Riley felt her panic fade. She owed him so much and wouldn’t have survived the trauma of losing her husband without him.
As she reached up to hug him, her daughter, Julia, burst out of the house and let the screen door slam behind her. She bounded down the steps and gave each of her grandparents a quick kiss, then hopped into the front seat of the SUV. Riley's two younger children, Emily and Jared, followed Julia and came to a stop in front of their mother.
Emily tossed her curly red ponytail and glared at Riley. “Why can’t I go with you, Mom? It's not fair,” she said in her signature, high-pitched whine. “Julia gets to go everywhere, but I get abandoned at home with Jared.”
Emily was nine going on thirty. Riley found it exhausting having to justify every decision to her.
“I’m not abandoning you. You know I’m only allowed one guest. Work on the attitude, and I’ll consider taking you next time.”
“Give it up, Emily,” Julia called from the car. “You’re not worming your way onto this trip.”
Not to be ignored, Jared pushed past Emily and hugged Riley's legs. Burying his face in her thigh, he said, "Don't leave me, Mommy. You'll never come back."
Riley rubbed his silky brown hair and fought her tears. Jared had been glued to her since Zach’s helicopter was shot down on the Afghanistan border three years earlier. During those early traumatic months, it had comforted her to have Jared close. When her leave-of-absence ended, and she returned to her practice, it became a daily challenge to get out of the house without traumatizing him. Riley had taken care to prepare him for her week-long absence, and he'd put on a brave face, but when the moment arrived to say goodbye, his courage vanished. She looked to her father and mouthed, "Help."
Thomas pried Jared from Riley and swung him onto his shoulders. "Hey, buddy, don't you want to stay with me? I've got lots of fun adventures planned."
Jared giggled and nodded. "What are we going to do, Papa?"
“That's a surprise for when I get back from the airport.” Thomas swung Jared back to the ground and said, “Emily, hug your mom, and take your brother in to wash up so you can help Nana get lunch ready.”
Emily rolled her eyes and gave Riley a half-hearted hug before taking Jared's hand to lead him into the house. Riley was grateful when he skipped along with Emily and didn’t look back.
Marjory folded her arms and watched her grandchildren walk to the house. "You’ll have your hands full with that Emily when she’s older."
Riley nodded. "She reminds me a little too much of her aunt Lily for my comfort. Are you sure you can handle those two while I'm gone?"
"We raised you and your sister just fine. Well, maybe not your sister," Marjory said with a grin.
Lily was two years younger than Riley and the free spirit of the family until she married Kevin, a loving man who was a steadying influence for Lily. Their first child, Miles, was six months old. Lily was a wonderful mother, and Riley's kids loved their new little cousin. She was grateful Lily only lived twenty minutes away and visited a few times a week.
"If you need a break, have Lily bring Miles over to distract the kids. It'll give you a chance to put your feet up."
"We'll be fine. Get going. The airport's going to be a zoo this soon after the holidays." Marjory shooed Riley toward the car, then headed into the house.
Julia clapped as Riley climbed in the backseat and said, “It’s about time, Mom. I don’t want to miss our plane.
Riley smiled at her thirteen-year-old daughter. Julia always looked at the world in joyful wonder. She was so much like her father. Her steadiness and positive outlook had sustained their family for the past three years.
Even though Julia had suffered Zach’s loss as profoundly as the rest of them, she was convinced he was in heaven looking out for them the way he always had before he died. Riley wished she could believe that, too, but she was riddled with doubts about the meaning behind his death. She did her best to push those feelings aside and soak up Julia's optimism while it lasted, hoping that navigating the teenage world wouldn’t crush her spirit.
Riley slid her carryon to the other side of the seat and hooked her seatbelt. She preferred to ride in the front, but Julia tended to get carsick on the twisty roads leading into Denver. As her father backed out of the driveway, she caught a brief glimpse of Jared's sad face as he waved to her from the kitchen window. She waved back, fighting the urge to jump out of the moving car and run back to her boy.
Riley relaxed her white-knuckle grip on the armrest as the shining Washington Monument came into view against the night sky. Though she’d been married to a pilot, flying had always made her nervous. Zach had taught her the dynamics of flight and assured her it was one of the safest forms of travel. While what he said made logical sense, it did nothing to quell her fears. She wouldn't have been able to step onto the jetway without therapy and sedatives.
After an uneventful drive to the five-star hotel where the conference was being held, Riley took advantage of valet parking, then excitedly led Julia to their elegant suite with a balcony view of the monuments.
"I feel like a movie star," Julia said as she stared wide-eyed at their room before kicking off her shoes and picking up the guest information binder. “I’m starving. Can we order room service?”
Riley pulled off her boots and dropped onto the overstuffed sofa. Too tired to go searching for a restaurant in the chilly air, she readily agreed. Their outrageously overpriced meal arrived forty-five minutes later, and after they ate, she ordered a pay-per-view movie Julia had been begging to see.
"I have to go downstairs and sign in for the conference but shouldn't be gone for more than fifteen minutes,” Riley said and kissed Julia’s forehead. “I’ll take my phone and key. Don't open the door to anyone and bolt it behind me. Call if you need anything."
“I'm old enough to handle being alone for fifteen minutes, Mom. You're just going downstairs, not to another state.”
Riley stuffed her phone and room key into each of her front pockets. "Sometimes, I forget how grown-up you are, but you know how I worry. And I don't care how mature you are, bolt the door behind me."
Julia followed her to the door, and Riley waited until she heard the bolt click before walking to the elevator. She took a deep breath as the elevator doors slid shut, grateful for a few moments of solitude.
Riley scanned the busy lobby for signs leading to the conference registration desk. She glanced at her conference map and nearly plowed into the woman in front of her when she stopped abruptly. Riley threw her arm out to steady herself and knocked over an easel holding the conference welcome sign. The easel bumped against a small table, sending a lamp and vase of flowers crashing to the floor. Two guests jumped out of the way to avoid the shattered ceramic and backed into another table, tipping it over. Hotel staff appeared from all directions, fussing and asking if anyone was hurt.
A man leaned against the wall, watching the entire fiasco with folded arms and a smug grin. "If anyone's hurt, they're in the right place with a lobby full of doctors," he said. Riley smiled at his comment as she scurried toward the hallway to escape unnoticed. "And where do you think you're going?" he asked her.
She squared her shoulders before turning to face him, feeling her cheeks redden with each step he took toward her.
"Nice performance," he said, making a sweep of his arm toward the pandemonium.
"Kind of you to notice. Were you entertained?"
Instead of answering, he burst out laughing. When Riley scowled, he caught his breath and said, "Forgive me, but how did someone so tiny cause all this chaos?"
His comment caught her off guard, and she laughed despite her effort to be offended.
He extended his hand and said, "Coop. Nice to meet you."
She raised an eyebrow. "Coop? What does that mean? Like, chicken coop?"
"My nickname. What my friends call me, and I hope you'll be calling me Coop."
"Too soon to know. I'm Dr. Riley Poole, orthopedic surgeon." She grasped his hand while keeping her eyes locked on his. "What does everyone else call you?"
"Dr. Neal Xavier Cooper IV."
"You’re Dr. Neal Cooper? The Dr. Cooper? The surgeon who invented the Xavier cardiac procedure?"
He gave a slight bow. "One and the same, but you’re an ortho. How come you’ve heard of me?"
"Are you serious? Every doctor’s heard of you. Are you presenting at the conference?"
"Yes, and worse, I'm in charge of this little shindig."
Riley was embarrassed for not knowing that but was also awed to be in the presence of the doctor who'd revolutionized cardiac surgery and helped save hundreds of thousands of lives.
He was nothing like she'd imagined. She'd pictured him as a contemporary of her father, but he was much younger, possibly no more than her age of thirty-five. He was just under six feet with an average build and light brown hair that stuck out in all directions. He had an easy manner and seemed amused at the way she studied him. Everything about him said, "boy next door," but Riley sensed more running beneath the surface.
"Did I pass inspection?" he asked and glanced at their clasped hands.
She released her hold on him and crossed her arms. "Too soon to know that either. So, you’re in charge of the conference?"
"Yes. I was on my way to check on registrations when a little redheaded twister started wreaking havoc in the lobby. I had no idea this conference would be so dangerous."
"My husband always said to be prepared for anything." The words tumbled out of her mouth from habit. She found herself wishing she could suck them back in.
Dr. Cooper’s tone changed slightly. "Sorry. Didn't notice the ring. Is Mr. Dr. Poole here? He's not going to come after me for flirting with you, is he?"
"He died when his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan three years ago. I still forget he’s gone sometimes." She pressed her lips together and shifted her feet. It was the most awkward and unpredictable conversation she'd ever had.
Dr. Cooper extended his hand again. "Can we have a do-over?"
"Yes, please, Dr. Cooper." She took a breath and squeezed his hand. "I'm from Colorado Springs. I have three children. Two girls and a boy. I brought my thirteen-year-old daughter with me. I should probably sign in and get back to her."
"I'm Coop from Chicago, divorced with no children. My wife decided five years ago that her acting coach was more fun than I am and took off with him. Honestly, our relationship was never anything to write home about, so it was no great loss. Since then, I've mostly worked, a lot."
Riley got into step beside him as he walked toward the conference room. "Seems like your ex was wrong about you. You have a good, if not odd, sense of humor, and I'd wager you're lots of fun. That's the first time I've laughed that hard since..." Her words trailed off. It still hurt to recall that former life, the one where Zach made her laugh every day. "Well, I haven't laughed that hard in a long time."
She couldn't seem to stop herself from revealing her intimate secrets to this stranger. Famous or not, she knew nothing about him as a man.
"Trauma. That's why I need a good sense of humor," he said quietly. "But, you're familiar with trauma."
They walked the last ten feet in silence.
The mess in the lobby was cleared up, and a new vase and lamp had magically appeared by the time they reached the conference room entrance. Though it looked like the incident had never happened, Riley had felt the world shift but was unsure what it meant.
She signed in for the conference and took the tote bag filled with materials from the registrar. When Coop stopped her as she headed for the lobby, she said, "Sorry for all the trouble earlier."
"I'm not," he said, holding her gaze. "Join me in the lounge after your daughter's asleep."
Riley was flattered by invitation but wasn't ready for anything so cozy with a man she’d just met. She wondered if he hooked up with a different woman at every conference.
"It's been a long day, and I'm exhausted. Would you like to join Julia and me for breakfast?"
"Great," he said, abruptly turning his back and striding off without another word.
Rude, she thought, assuming he hadn’t approved of Julia tagging along to their tête-à-tête. She pressed the elevator button and tapped her foot while she waited. So much for the famous Dr. Cooper.
Riley called Julia on the way back to the suite to ask her to unbolt the door, but she didn’t answer. She tried two more times and felt the panic stir in her gut. She stopped at the hotel phone in the hallway near their room and tried again. Julia answered on the third ring.
"Hello?" she mumbled.
"It's Mom. Let me in, please."
Julia hung up, and the door swung open a few seconds later.
"I've been calling your cell. Why didn't you answer?" Riley said as she followed Julia inside.
Julia yawned. "You were gone for a long time. Where were you?"
Riley felt her face flush and hoped it was too dark for Julia to see. "There was some confusion downstairs. You didn't answer my question."
"I turned my phone off because everyone kept bothering me. Emily texted me like five times."
"Emily? Where'd she get a phone?"
Riley had given Julia a phone for her twelfth birthday because she knew she'd need one in middle school, but there was no way she was giving Emily a phone, maybe ever.
"She has Papa's phone,” Julia said. “She called you, too, and was ticked that you didn’t answer."
Riley forgot she’d silenced her ringer and pulled the phone from her pocket to switch it on. “Don’t turn your phone off again, Julia, even if Emily is annoying you."
Julia crossed her arms and tilted her head. “You mean like you did? What if I had an emergency while you were downstairs?” She had a good point, but Riley didn’t want to admit that to her. “Emily’s texting will drive me nuts. Ask Papa not to let her have his phone.”
“I’ll call him before I go to sleep.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’m going back to bed.”
Riley gave her a quick hug and kiss on the cheek. “Night, sweetheart.”
When Julia closed her door, Riley went to her room to change for bed and snuggled into bed. After her long, anxious day of travel, she’d expected to drop off as quickly as Julia had but found herself staring at the dark ceiling, trying not to fantasize about Zach lying with her in that enormous bed. She hadn’t been plagued by such thoughts in many months and blamed her encounter with Dr. Cooper.
There was no denying the attraction between them, but the way he’d run off baffled her. If he hadn’t wanted Julia to join them for breakfast, all he had to do was say so. She’d have been willing to make other plans, but he hadn’t given her a chance.
She groaned in frustration and pounded her pillow into a ball while shutting out thoughts of him. She’d brought Julia along to spend some one-on-one time and create new memories. The last thing she wanted to do was let some random man interfere with that.
Riley stepped onto the balcony at six the next morning and quietly closed the door to keep the street sounds from waking Julia. Breathing in the fifty-degree air and letting the sun stream onto her face, she savored the warmth that was unheard of in Colorado on a January morning. She hadn't slept well and hoped the sunlight would rejuvenate her.
She looked over the brilliant, bustling city and smiled, excited to show Julia the sights. She was looking forward to the conference as well, despite Dr. Cooper, and hated that he was part of the reason for her restlessness in the night. The only solution was to keep her distance from him. There would be hundreds of doctors at the conference. He could undoubtedly find someone else to annoy. She took another breath and headed inside to enjoy a bubble bath in her elegant jetted tub.
Julia was still sleeping an hour later. Riley hated to wake her, but if they were going to have breakfast before the conference orientation, she had no choice. She looked so serene sleeping there, and thirteen or not, Julia was still her angelic little sweetheart. Riley wished she could stop her from growing up. Losing her father had forced her to face more than her share of the harsh realities of life.
Riley sat next to her on the bed and brushed a strand of soft brown hair from her face. Riley had always envied Julia's thick straight locks that were so like Zach's and not her red, unruly ones. Poor Emily had inherited Riley's hair and blamed her almost daily. Julia was tall and wiry like her father, too, not puny like Riley.
Julia stirred and grinned at her. "What time is it? Feels like I just went to sleep."
Riley kissed her forehead. "It's seven-thirty, so only five-thirty at home. It'll take a day or two to adjust to the time difference. Do you still want to go downstairs for breakfast, or would you rather eat in the room?"
Julia flew out of bed and grabbed a handful of clothes from her suitcase. "If I have to be locked in here all day, I better get out while I can. I'll take a quick shower."
"You won't be locked in here the entire day," Riley said, as Julia ran past her into the bathroom and slammed the door. "I'll have breaks, and we’ll have lunch together. And we’re going to tour the monuments after dinner."
Julia opened the door a crack and stuck her head through. "I still wish you'd let me go to the seminars with you."
"You're not allowed to, sweetheart, and you’d be bored to tears. You need to stay here and do your homework."
"I could take my homework with me," she said and closed the door.
"We've been through this. Please, don’t be an Emily. I don’t have the energy."
"How dare you call me that?" she said over the sound of the shower.
Riley chuckled and got up to prepare her materials for the day. She scanned the list of workshops she planned to attend and ran over her notes for the seminar she’d be teaching. The room phone rang as she slipped her laptop into the tote.
"This is the front desk," a man said when she answered. "Dr. Cooper has asked me to relay his apologies, but he's unable to join you for breakfast this morning as he has conference duties to attend to."
“Didn’t know he’d planned to join me for breakfast,” she said, "but thank you for calling.”
"My pleasure, Dr. Poole. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"No, thank you," she said and hung up.
"Who was that?" Julia asked as she came out of the bathroom.
"Front desk. It's nothing. You ready?"
Julia nodded and headed for the door. Riley followed her, more confused about Dr. Cooper than she’d been the night before. She’d taken his behavior as anything but an acceptance of her breakfast invitation. She put thoughts of him to rest and went to enjoy breakfast with her daughter.