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His long awaited bride, p.11

His Long-Awaited Bride, page 11

 

His Long-Awaited Bride
 


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  You’re not being fair, she scolded herself. Travis worked just as hard at his job. The difference was that Travis spent his day in a very public position that demanded a proper, businesslike appearance. His career might not be as physically demanding as a doctor’s, but he wasn’t a slouch. He visited the health club religiously every evening and played basketball on the weekends.

  So? her little voice asked. Would Travis have helped her weed Lucy’s garden this last weekend? Helped her scrub Toby clean? Probably not, she admitted. In the short time she’d known him, he’d made it plain that he believed in getting the best man for the job. Which meant that a professional would have been called to look after Lucy’s garden. As for Toby, an appointment with a dog groomer would have been in order.

  Would he have listened to her opinions about decorating his apartment or, better yet, would he have even asked for her opinion?

  From what she knew of Travis’s personality, lifestyle and aspirations, he would have hired an interior decorator rather than attempt a do-it-yourself project, but she wouldn’t fault him for that, either. In his position, entertaining was a given and image was extremely important.

  And Justin’s image wasn’t?

  Of course it was, she answered herself, but Justin knew that she enjoyed being creative. The subject hadn’t ever surfaced with Travis—they didn’t have the same long history that she and Justin had—so she couldn’t subtract points from his column because he didn’t know her well enough yet.

  Points? Good heavens, what was she doing? The two men were apples and oranges, and even if they weren’t her potential for a future with Travis was far greater and more rewarding than her future with Justin.

  Travis’s voice broke into her thoughts. “We’ve cut some of our expenditure in the maintenance department,” he said. “All of our departments were affected. Not only the groundskeeping section.

  “The chemicals we use are standard products, used by a lot of communities across the country for weed and pest control. The product we’re using is more cost-effective.

  “We are concerned about the mosquito problem. Our maintenance staff have been targeting those areas of town where we have drainage problems.” He paused. “We don’t currently have plans to spray residential areas. Hope is a fairly large community and we simply can’t cover every square inch at the present time. I understand those communities with massive spraying programs in place have also had cases of West Nile. Those with the disease have my sympathies and I wish them all a speedy recovery.”

  He cut off the call, leaned back in his chair and smiled broadly at her. “Well, well, what a surprise. What brings you here?” he asked.

  Marissa had a hard time shifting thought gears. “I, um, was on my way home and thought I’d stop by and ask how your trip went.”

  “It was great. I made a number of good contacts at the seminars I attended and have a lot of new ideas to implement. With luck, I’ll put Hope on the map,” he crowed.

  “Progress is good,” she pointed out, suddenly aware that his large personal goals included big dreams for the town, as well. She didn’t disagree with his ambitions, but she didn’t want to sacrifice the essence of Hope on the altar of city development.

  All at once his motives seemed suspect, and it became easy to put two and two together. He seemed far more interested in building his résumé than in actually building the town into a place where the residents enjoyed living, both for the short and long term.

  “Hope is already on the map,” she said. “It may be small by some standards, but it is growing.”

  “On a limited scale,” he agreed. “But its potential is far greater. We need to capitalize on our strengths and use them to our advantage to bring people into town. For example, not only do we have some of the best lakeview scenery, but our medical community is top-notch. We need to promote those things.”

  She seized the opening. “Speaking of medicine, I couldn’t help but overhear your discussion about mosquitoes.”

  “Unfortunately, our Hope Daily News reporter thinks the city is singlehandedly responsible for the local West Nile cases,” he said wryly.

  Because of Lucy, this subject was near and dear to her heart, so she wanted to sound him out. “Oh? What makes him think that?”

  “Our budget cuts are no secret. Unfortunately, some of them aren’t popular. Mosquito control is one that fell by the wayside.”

  “You’re not serious, are you? You’ve eliminated the program?”

  “It isn’t as horrifying as you think. We’re using a more cost-effective chemical now, and only spray in those parts of town where our crews have found standing water. Because we’re focusing on the five or six problem sites, we’ve cut our usage by two-thirds. With prices being what they are, we can’t afford to treat the entire town.”

  “We used to.” She remembered how notices would appear in the newspaper, telling people to close their windows on the nights when fogging took place.

  “Yes, and the city hasn’t met its budget for the past five years,” he reminded her. “I was hired to bring the finances into line, and I’m doing that.”

  “But what about all the people who use the city parks?” she persisted. “The kids who play baseball and tennis? Not to mention everyone who mows their grass or gardens or simply spends time outdoors?”

  “People have to assume responsibility for themselves. I can’t help it if they choose not to wear mosquito repellant or the proper clothing when they’re outdoors.”

  “This is summertime,” she pointed out. “Children aren’t going to stop, change into long pants and long-sleeved shirts before they go out to play.”

  “There are chemicals available for home lawn use, not to mention all of the other mosquito elimination gadgets on the market. People can buy the level of protection they want or need, rather than expect the city to foot the bill.”

  “That’s a rather cold attitude, don’t you think?” she asked, irritated by his attitude. “Especially with this being a public health issue?”

  He moved to sit on the edge of his desk. “Now, Marissa, you surely don’t believe that the government should micromanage people’s lives.”

  “This isn’t micromanagement,” she insisted. “This is about people’s health and quality of life. My neighbor contracted West Nile in spite of taking every precaution she could. People are doing their part to limit their risks, but the city has to do its part, too.”

  “She has my sympathies, but when we were reviewing our expenditures, I had to draw the line somewhere. We just don’t have the finances. I’m sorry.”

  “But can’t you cut other areas?”

  “Look, Marissa. I appreciate your concern, but do I tell you how to do your job?”

  “No,” she said slowly.

  “Then don’t tell me how to do mine.”

  Hearing the rebuke in his voice, she rose. How had an innocent welcome-back visit turned into a debate? “I understand what you’re trying to do, but I won’t apologize for wanting to protect people’s health.”

  As she turned toward the door, he grabbed her hand. “I don’t expect you to,” he said. “Your compassion is what makes you so very special.”

  His compliment should have made her feel better but, oddly enough, it didn’t. Instead, his flattery reminded her of the time when Kristi’s two-year-old nephew had wanted an expensive toy truck in the store and she had diverted his attention with a gumdrop. Marissa, on the other hand, refused to be distracted as easily.

  “Then, as a favor to me, will you look into this further? See what you can do?” she pressed.

  He fell silent for several seconds, his gaze intent. “I don’t suppose you’ll rest until I tell the maintenance crews to include all the city parks.”

  His offer was a less-than-ideal compromise, but it was better than nothing. “It’s a start,” she said.

  “It’s the best I can do.”

  Although a “take it or leave it” comment went unsaid, it was impli
ed. “Thank you.” She offered a bright smile, which seemed a fair enough reward. “A lot of people will appreciate your change of heart.”

  “Good. As we’ve ironed out that issue, I’d better get back to work.” He motioned to his paper-laden desk. “As you can see, I have a few more things to take care of before I can call it a day.”

  “Of course. I didn’t mean to interrupt.” She headed for the door, then stopped, once again the peacemaker. “It’s good to have you back, Travis.”

  “Thanks,” he said. “It’s good to be back.”

  Marissa walked through the now-vacated building, glad that their relationship was back on friendly terms. And yet, deep down inside, something still didn’t set quite right. She’d always been so impressed by his goals, career plans, and impeccable manners that she hadn’t seen his lack of concern for the people he was supposed to serve. She couldn’t imagine Justin being willing to save a few dollars at the expense of his patients’ welfare.

  Don’t make unfair comparisons, she chided herself. Being tired, she was simply overreacting to the situation. So she didn’t see eye to eye with his choices about where to save money. There were probably a lot of other, equally important programs that hadn’t got the proverbial axe.

  But did they involve public health? her little voice asked.

  It was hard to say and it certainly wasn’t her place to decide, she told herself firmly. The point was, every couple had differences of opinion. It didn’t mean they weren’t right for each other. Besides, he’d listened to her arguments, then compromised, hadn’t he? What more could she want?

  Once she’d laid her doubts to rest, she realized that she hadn’t confirmed their dinner date for the following evening. It seemed ridiculous to phone him later when she was in the building, so she quickly retraced her steps to Travis’s office as she planned her menu.

  She’d grill this time. After dining out for the past several days, he’d probably welcome a bit of home cooking. Ribeye steaks, twice-baked potatoes, a Caesar salad and her special chocolate caramel cheesecake for dessert would make the perfect meal. Satisfied by her ideas, she poked her head into his office.

  Her words died in her throat as soon as she saw the two people inside.

  She didn’t mind seeing his secretary—the woman had every right to be there. After all, there had to be times when they would need to work together on a particular project.

  What Marissa did mind, however, was seeing that same secretary wrapped in Travis’s enthusiastic embrace, with her form-fitting blue skirt exposing long legs and her opened shirt revealing a lacy black bra.

  And Travis—the rat!—was kissing her with enough passion to light up Main Street on Christmas Eve.

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  MARISSA froze, too stunned to do more than gape like a landed fish at the two of them. Surely she was dreaming. Travis had been too attentive, too polite, too sincere toward her for this to be happening.

  And yet it was.

  Undeniably.

  She must have a made a sound, because the two broke apart and glanced at her with matching looks of surprise and embarrassment. Within seconds, the young woman recovered enough to adjust her clothing while Travis sheepishly straightened his tie.

  “Marissa,” he said weakly. “I thought you’d gone.”

  “Obviously,” she replied calmly. Later, when she was alone and the shock had worn off, she’d experience the full gamut of emotions. At that moment, she felt numb.

  “I’d only come back to confirm our dinner date,” she continued, “but under the circumstances, I’d say it isn’t necessary.” How ironic for her to have considered their relationship as exclusive, while he clearly had not.

  What a fool she’d been!

  Anger began to build, but she refused to act on it. Somehow it seemed important to treat the situation lightly as a matter of pride. Letting him suspect that her feelings had run deeper than they plainly should have would only make him laugh at her naiveté.

  She stepped forward and extended her hand. “We haven’t been introduced. I’m Marissa Benson.”

  He filled the breach. “This is Tanya Hathaway. She’s my secretary.”

  “Administrative Assistant,” Tanya corrected as she limply shook Marissa’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

  “We were working late,” he began.

  “Oh, I can see that,” Marissa said airily. How blind did he think she was? “Budget issues, no doubt. Anyway, as I can see how busy you both are, and as what I was going to ask you is no longer important, I’ll leave you two to carry on.”

  This time she found her way to the entrance in record time, but before she could open the door Travis reached around her and held it closed.

  “I can explain,” he began.

  “I’m sure you can,” she said through gritted teeth, wanting to escape before she did something foolish, like burst into noisy tears.

  After she beaned him with her purse, of course.

  “Tanya and I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship,” he began. “I didn’t think we could ever work through our differences, so—”

  “From the looks of things in your office…” she motioned over her shoulder “…I’d say you did. How long have you two been back together?”

  “Since yesterday. Our reconciliation came as somewhat of a surprise,” he admitted.

  I’ll bet. She swallowed her words because, no matter what, she would weather this with grace. He would never know just how badly her own imagination, wants and desires had run amok. Thank goodness only two people knew—Kristi and Justin. And if Travis hadn’t been so flamboyant with his flowers, only Kristi would have known.

  “Anyway, when I met you, I thought I was ready for an entirely new relationship. But…” He shrugged.

  “You weren’t,” she finished. “I understand.” She didn’t. Not really. “But I wish you’d told me about her. You should have.”

  Once again, he didn’t defend himself.

  She held her keys with a death grip and took a deep breath. It seemed pointless to cast blame at this stage or belabor the facts. Their relationship was over before it had even had a chance to develop. She knew that now.

  “I wish you both well.”

  “Thanks. I’m sorry for any misunderstandings.”

  She was, too. “I only have one question. Why all the flowers? Were you hedging your bets with me or simply trying to make Tanya jealous?”

  He opened his mouth, then closed it as if unsure of what to say.

  That small action spoke volumes.

  “On second thought,” she added, with a small smile that cost her, “don’t answer. I’d rather keep the fantasy.”

  “I’m sorry, Marissa.”

  If she heard his apology one more time, she was going to strangle him with his tie. As if “I’m sorry” would be enough to salve the hurt of lost dreams.

  “We had a lot going for us,” he continued. “If Tanya hadn’t been in the picture…”

  Unable to choke out a reply and definitely unable to feel grateful over her runner-up status, she tugged on the door and hurried to her car. Tears burned behind her eyes and threatened to spill down her face but she held them at bay by sheer force of will.

  Life would go on, she told herself. Losing Travis wasn’t the end of the world.

  Then why did she feel like it was?

  Justin had been trying to reach Marissa all evening. After his interview with Rick Miller, a two-car collision on the highway leading into town, two chest-pain cases, a broken hip and the usual assortment of minor emergencies had sent their small ER staff scrambling for additional coverage. Being the man on call, he’d come in to assist, which meant that he hadn’t been able to help Marissa with the second coat of paint as planned.

  He’d left a message on her home answering machine as well as her cellphone’s voice mail, asking her to return his call, but she hadn’t. Now, at nine o’clock, with the crises under control, he still hadn’t heard from her. No matter
. He’d drop by her place later in order to reschedule.

  Her house, however, was dark, suggesting that she wasn’t at home, so he checked out her usual haunts. No one, including Kristi, had seen her.

  “You’ve got bigger problems,” Kristi told him. “I found out a few minutes ago that our illustrious city manager has a girlfriend on the side.”

  “What?”

  She nodded grimly. “An assistant or something in his office.”

  “That sorry piece of—” He cut himself off as he ran his hands through his hair.

  “Yeah, well, I said something a little stronger when I found out. The question is, does Mari know and if she doesn’t, how are we going to tell her?”

  He shook his head. This news would devastate Marissa. Not only that, but if he told her, she’d probably shoot the messenger. Provided she believed him, of course.

  What to do?

  “Before I can do anything, I have to find her.” He’d deal with the other issue later.

  She had to go home sometime and so, with that thought in mind, he returned to her place. Unfortunately, her property appeared as deserted as it had thirty minutes earlier. No one answered the door or turned on the lights in response to his knock.

  Worry set in, but short of asking the police department to issue an all-points bulletin to find her, all he could do was to leave more messages on her phone.

  As he turned away to return to his car, he heard a muffled bark and scratching at the door. Toby was never allowed to run loose if Marissa was away from home, yet he clearly had free rein. Which meant that she had to be at home, too.

  A bad feeling settled in his gut. Something was wrong—he knew it as well as he knew his own name. The question was, what?

  Without giving his actions a second thought, he flipped through his set of keys until he found the spare that Marissa had given him for an emergency. This qualified, he decided, as he let himself inside.

  Toby greeted him with a happy woof.

  “What’s up buddy?” he asked as he bent to scratch the dog’s ears. “Where’s Marissa?”

 
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