'Yes. She would've liked you.'
'I'm sure I would have liked her. Everything you've told me about her...she sounds lovely.' The kind of grandmother—or mother—everyone would want. Full of common sense and good advice and a hug when you needed it most. Behind you all the way. The kind of mother Mara never could be.
Jake said nothing, so she waited. He'd tell her when he was ready.
And then it came. The answer she'd been praying for. 'I'll do it.'
'You'll do it?' She needed to be sure. Sure she wasn't just hearing what she wanted to hear.
'Yes. But there's something I want you to think about. You're literally putting your life in my hands. If I make the tiniest slip, you could die.' He looked grim. 'And brain surgery's not without risks. You could have a stroke. Be left paralysed, unable to talk. Your memory could be affected. At the very least, you could have some neurological deficits after the op.'
'I know. But you could say the same about any other surgeon. I want you to do it—I trust you.'
He nodded. 'You're asking me to do something incredibly hard, something I don't want to do—and do it because I love you. The stakes are high, Vicky. Really high. If I don't do it, I lose you. If I do it, and something goes wrong, I lose you.'
'Nothing's going to go wrong.'
'You don't know that for sure.' He looked brooding. 'Vicky, I love you. And that's why I'm going to do it, if you still want me to. But if you put me through this, you don't get to walk away afterwards. I want you to marry me.'
'So the stakes are as high for me as they are for you?' she guessed.
'Yes.' The word came out as an anguished whisper.
She knew she was asking a lot of him. She wasn't sure if she could do it, if their positions were reversed: could she
perform a life-saving operation on him, knowing that one slip of the scalpel, one wrong move with a retractor, could cause permanent and severe damage?
And now he was asking a lot of her. Marriage. When he knew that her career came first, last and always.
It had, before today.
But things were different now. She'd been doing a lot of thinking. And if she pulled through the operation—then, yes. Jake was the one she wanted to spend her life with. Marry. Maybe have children with, if they were lucky. 'You get me through this unscathed, and I'll marry you any time, any place you choose. But if it goes wrong, I want you to walk away and forget me.'
'I can't do that.'
'Yes, you can. I'm a neurologist. I know the risks. I've got a four per cent chance of dying on the table. The aneurysm's unlikely to grow back, but it could burst during the operation—and if there's a massive bleed into my brain I could have a stroke. Or if you catch a major artery during the op, or clip the parent blood vessel by mistake, it could make me have a stroke. But I know you're careful, Jake. Your stats are good. I think everything's going to be fine.' She paused. 'But if it isn't...if I do have a stroke and need long-term care, I need you to walk away. Don't you see? Right now, you want to look after me. But there won't be any respite. Day in, day out. Maybe for years and years and years. And eventually you'll start to resent it. Then guilt will set in. And slowly, slowly, what you feel for me won't be love any more. It'll be pity. And you'll hate yourself for it'
'It doesn't have to be like that.' He raked his hand through his hair. 'I cared for Nan.'
'But it wasn't for very long. And it wasn't full time, either, because she made you promise you wouldn't give up your studies.' She knew she was ripping his scars wide open by reminding him of past pain, and she hated herself for it. But he had to be realistic about things, see the situation for what it was. 'Jake, I'm thirty-one. We could be talking about forty, fifty years. That's a hell of a long time.'
'I know it's a long time. Marriage is forever. The stakes are high for us both.' He sighed. 'I was so sure you'd say no.'
And that was why he'd asked her, because he'd wanted her to refuse the deal? Or did he really want to marry her? He'd already said he loved her, and she believed him. She knew, too, exactly how much she was asking of him. And that reminded her of something she needed to say. 'If I hadn't been ill...I was going to tell you yesterday. Except I thought I might chicken out.'
'Chicken out of what?'
'There's a box in my desk. Flat, gold, with a dark green ribbon round it. It's for you. A present.'
He frowned. 'It's not my birthday.'
'Unbirthday present. Except I didn't get the chance to give it to you.' She smiled. 'I'll give it to you tomorrow.'
He shook his head. 'You're not going back to work tomorrow.'
'I'm bored stiff hanging around here all day. I'd rather be doing something to keep my mind off it.'
'Jake, be reasonable. I'm supposed to avoid stress, right?'
'Which is why you're not doing a shift on a busy ward that's short-staffed right now.'