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His long awaited bride, p.12

His Long-Awaited Bride, page 12

 

His Long-Awaited Bride
 


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  The dog cocked his head, stared intently as if to ask him to follow then calmly trotted away in the direction of the living room.

  Justin followed. Other than the sound of toenails clicking on the wood floor, the house was silent. The situation was puzzling, but the Cairn’s easygoing manner was somewhat reassuring.

  “Saving on electricity, Mari?” he teased as he walked past the kitchen and clicked on the light. “I can float you a loan if you can’t pay your bill this month.”

  He found her in the family room, in the dark, watching television with the volume set at a few notches above a whisper. “Here you are,” he said, reaching to activate the table lamp’s switch.

  She must have expected him to do just that, because she said, “Don’t,” her voice husky.

  His concern over her physical health might have faded, but something was definitely wrong. The television’s glow guided his steps to the sofa where she sat with Toby curled in her lap. Even with such limited visibility, he could make out her red nose and the dark circles under her eyes. She’d obviously taken a shower because her hair was wet and she was wearing an oversize bed-shirt that read BOYS ARE STUPID.

  A box of tissues rested beside her while the coffee table held a pile of wadded Kleenex, a bottle of Chardonnay, a single long-stemmed wineglass and a half-empty bowl of popcorn.

  “Drowning your sorrows or celebrating?” he asked.

  “I haven’t decided yet.”

  “Oh. Mind if I have a seat?”

  “Actually, you could just go on home. I’m not in the mood for company.”

  “Then it’s a good thing I’m not considered company.” He plonked down next to her. Wondering what had caused her mood, and sensing that she wasn’t ready to bare her soul, he started to guess. “Are you upset about Lucy? Her recovery is going slowly and she’ll need physical therapy for a long time, but she’s doing fine.”

  “I know.”

  He played another hunch. “For your information, Abby’s contractions stopped. Jennings is keeping her for observation, though.”

  She nodded. “I checked on her before I left work.”

  He’d eliminated those two possibilities and with nothing else to go on, he eyed the wine bottle. “You haven’t drained the whole thing, have you?”

  “One glass is still my limit.”

  That was a comforting thought. Yet he also knew that Marissa only drank on special occasions. He might not be the most intuitive of men, but this plainly wasn’t a night for rejoicing. For whatever reason, she’d broken her rule tonight. With Toby being his usual doggy self and both Lucy and Abby in a stable condition, she didn’t have many excuses left.

  Other than Pendleton.

  Had she learned of his duplicity, just as Kristi had?

  He wanted to broach the subject, then decided it would be better if he waited her out. Patience wasn’t his strong suit—he wanted to hear the problem so he could fix it and move on.

  And if Pendleton was the problem…then he would take matters in his own hands. The man would regret he’d ever thought of playing false with Marissa.

  “Have you eaten?” he asked instead.

  “Popcorn. Want some?”

  From the way a single glass of wine relaxed her, he could only imagine how such a small amount of alcohol would affect her on an empty stomach. “I’d rather have pizza. How about you?”

  “I’m not hungry.” She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

  “I am.” Without giving her an opportunity to gainsay him, he unclipped his cell phone from his belt and phoned in his delivery order. “Twenty minutes,” he announced as soon as he’d finished.

  “You could have picked it up on your way home,” she mentioned.

  “I hate to eat alone.” She didn’t respond. Neither did she seem inclined to chat, so he changed tactics.

  “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong? Or do I have to drag it out of you?”

  “Nothing’s wrong.”

  “I see. You like to sit in the dark.”

  “It’s my house. I can sit in the dark if I want.”

  “It isn’t something you normally do,” he reminded her.

  “You’re not the only one who can turn over a new leaf.”

  “Ah.” He fell silent and spent a few minutes watching a rerun of The Lucy Show—Marissa’s favorite choice when something weighed heavily on her.

  More and more it seemed as if Pendleton was the cause of Marissa’s low spirits. If that were the case, then Justin vowed to hang him out to dry.

  Marissa stroked Toby’s head, grateful for her pet’s steady presence. He’d listened to her sad story, commiserated with her and withheld judgment. Dogs truly were a woman’s best friend.

  Now, if only she could get rid of Justin, she and Toby could be alone. It wouldn’t be for some time, though, because he’d ordered a pizza. How like a man to think that food provided the solution to everything.

  “Did you stop by for a reason?” she asked. “Because if you didn’t, I’m making this an early night.”

  “I drove by because I was worried when you didn’t return my calls. Didn’t you get my message?”

  She stroked Toby’s back. “Sorry. Was it important?”

  “I had to cancel our paint date. ER got busy and I filled in.”

  She’d forgotten all about their project, but she couldn’t summon enough energy to apologize. Her whole world had been shaken; she was entitled to forget an appointment or two. “There’s always tomorrow night.”

  “I thought you had plans with Trevor.”

  This time she didn’t bother to correct his use of the wrong name. “Not anymore.”

  “City business again?”

  She managed a laugh. To think she’d been so impressed by Travis’s long hours and dedication. Now she could only wonder how many of those late nights he’d actually been working. Somehow everything he’d ever told her seemed suspect, especially when she considered how he hadn’t mentioned a word about Tanya until she’d caught them together.

  “You could say so,” she said.

  She would have preferred to share the story after she’d come to terms with the day’s events—preferably in the next decade—but with Justin underfoot, she didn’t have the option. It was as plain as the dog in her lap that Justin had settled himself in for the duration. Sticking to her silent routine would only delay the inevitable.

  “I may as well give you the condensed version,” she muttered. “Travis is seeing someone else.”

  “Oh.”

  “His secretary.”

  “I see.”

  “Actually, she’s his administrative assistant.”

  “Since when?”

  “Since before he met me. They’d broken up, but now they’re back together.”

  He scooted closer and hugged her. “I’m so sorry, Mari. I wish I could say something to make you feel better.”

  “I’m okay. Really.” That was debatable, but he didn’t need to know it. Suddenly, she realized he hadn’t sounded shocked or outraged by her announcement. Her eyes narrowed as she turned to study him. “You don’t sound too surprised. Did you know about Travis?”

  “I’d heard a rumor,” he began.

  “When?”

  “I went to Kristi’s tonight to look for you. She told me about Travis.”

  Marissa was horrified. “She knows, too?”

  “Afraid so.”

  Inwardly she groaned. “Goody. By tomorrow, I’ll be fielding blind dates with Kristi’s second cousins twice removed.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m told the proper mourning period for an unfaithful fellow is three days. Kristi’ll wait that long at least.”

  Marissa managed a smile. “Don’t count on it.”

  “In the meantime, is there anything I can do? Spike his doughnuts with laxative? Squirt superglue on his executive chair? Smear black shoe polish on his phone?”

  The image of Justin sneaking into Travis’s office with a stoc
king cap over his face made her giggle. “Just ruin him, please.”

  “He’s doing that well enough on his own. As soon as people read tomorrow’s newspaper, he’ll spend his day fielding irate phone calls. He has a lot to answer for and the citizens of Hope are going to hold him accountable.”

  “Because he cut the mosquito control program?”

  “None other,” he assured her. “I followed a lead today and passed it on to the reporter. How did you find out?”

  “I was in Travis’s office when Miller called. I still can’t believe Travis was willing to sacrifice people’s health for money. When I think of how Lucy and all the rest of our West Nile cases might have not gotten ill if we’d sprayed all over town and not just a few spots, it makes me furious!”

  “You aren’t the only one,” he said darkly. “The man simply has other priorities.”

  “He needs to get them in order.”

  “Let’s hope so. For what it’s worth, Mari, Pendleton wasn’t the right man for you.”

  “Obviously not,” she said wryly. “But if you’re going to say ‘I told you so…’”

  “I’m not. But I really thought you’d dump him as soon as you realized that Toby and Travis didn’t share a mutual admiration society.”

  “I should have, but I honestly thought Toby would grow on him.”

  “Given enough time, maybe, but dogs are a good judge of character. No one can pull the fur over their eyes.”

  She moved her hand to rub Toby’s tummy and he stretched out to allow her greater access. “You’re just saying that because Toby likes you,” she said.

  He grinned. “Of course. Dog-lover or not, look at it this way. Pendleton’s girlfriend saved you a lot of grief.”

  Maybe in the long term, but at the moment the short term was quite painful.

  “Do you know the worst part of all this?” she mused. “I feel like such a fool. I saw the same signs you did, but I ignored them.”

  “Sometimes we see what we want to see.”

  What a spooky thought. How could she trust her judgment the next time? She clearly had serious flaws when it came to choosing men. “What scares me the most,” she said slowly, “is how I’m more like my mother than I’d thought.”

  “What makes you say that?”

  “She always falls in love with the first man who shows an interest in her. No wonder she’s been married four times and is working on number five.”

  “You are not your mom,” he said firmly.

  She continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “I never could understand how she could live her life the way she did but, oddly enough, now I can. The fear of being alone makes a person overlook a lot of faults.”

  “You aren’t alone.”

  Having his arm around her was as comforting as a warm blanket and a hot fire on a cold night. Yes, she had a lot of good, close friends, Justin included, but she wanted more than a few acquaintances. She wanted a husband, children, a mortgage and a minivan.

  She wanted a family.

  Unfortunately, once again, the possibility had slipped out of her grasp.

  Living with her grandmother and seeing her childhood friends with their parents and siblings had shown her just how much she’d been missing. Well, she was tired of dashing her hopes. If she wasn’t destined to have a husband, she could still have the rest of her dream, couldn’t she?

  Her resolve strengthened. Yes, she could. It would be tough, but she could do it. She would do it.

  “Well, I won’t be alone for too long. I’m going to have a baby,” she announced.

  Never at a loss for words, Justin couldn’t frame a single coherent thought. “You’re what?”

  Before she could answer, the doorbell shattered the tense moment. “Pizza’s here,” she said.

  A red haze colored Justin’s vision as he dealt with the delivery boy. How could Pendleton have put Mari in such a predicament, then left her? The man was a sorrier excuse for a human than Justin had thought. He deserved something far more than a laxative-laden doughnut. Broken kneecaps, a busted nose and several well-placed punches seemed far more appropriate.

  He plunked the flat box onto the coffee table, his appetite gone. “You’re pregnant,” he said flatly, waiting for—dreading—confirmation.

  “Not yet.”

  Once again, he froze, completely confused. “You said you were.”

  “I said I was going to have a baby. But I’m not pregnant. Not yet.”

  He held up his hands. “Wait a minute. I’m lost.”

  “It’s quite simple, Justin. I should have thought of this before. I don’t have good luck with the men in my life, so I’ve decided to skip that part of the plan and go straight to having a baby. I’ll be thirty soon. My biological clock is ticking.”

  “Without a male in your equation, how do you expect to become pregnant?”

  “I just got the idea, Justin. I haven’t worked out all the details. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a donor, though.”

  She wanted a donor. Heaven help him, but he wanted to be the one she chose. And he wanted to donate the old-fashioned way, not with medical science’s syringes and test tubes.

  “Did you have someone in mind?” he asked warily, hoping she’d say no and wishing for her to ask him.

  She paused. “No. Not really.”

  The notion of watching her screen prospective men to be the father of her baby was more than he could handle. “I have to tell you, Mari, this is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard,” he said flatly.

  “It is not,” she defended herself.

  “Yes, it is.” Unable to contain himself, he clicked off the television with the remote, rose and began to pace. “Just so you’ll know, I wanted things between you and Pendleton to fall apart.”

  She sat, stunned. “Why? Didn’t you want me to be happy?”

  “Of course I did. I was jealous. I didn’t want you to be happy with him. I wanted you to be happy with me.”

  “But I am happy with you, Justin. We would still be friends—”

  “Dammit, Mari,” he exploded as he ran his hands through his hair. “Don’t you get it? I don’t want to be a friend. I want to be more.” He met her gaze without hesitation.

  Her jaw dropped. “More?”

  “More,” he said firmly. “I’ve listened to all your reasons why we don’t suit, but as far as I’m concerned, every one you listed is wrong. You haven’t given us a chance and until you do, I’m not going to stand by and watch you find some other guy to be a sperm donor. If that’s what you’re thinking, you can put that thought right out of your head!”

  Silence reigned for a long minute. Even Toby realized the atmosphere had changed because he now sat up, his ears perked up as if on alert.

  “Marissa,” he began, but before he could say more than her name, she burst into noisy tears.

  Justin winced. This hadn’t been the response he’d expected. Surprise, then a gentle smile as her eyes lit up had been the reactions he’d been hoping to see. Then again, his delivery and timing hadn’t been the best. He should have wined and dined her first, not blurted his announcement without laying the proper groundwork.

  Now she was upset and Justin didn’t know why. One thing was for certain: the only thing guaranteed to make a man feel totally at a loss and completely uncomfortable was a woman crying. Neither did it help when Toby stared at him with reproach in his dark doggy eyes. You broke her, now fix her, he seemed to say.

  Resigned, Justin crouched beside her. “Aw, honey. You don’t have to cry.”

  “I know.” She sniffled, pulling a tissue out of the box to blow her nose. “It’s just that I’d waited for years for you to notice me as more than the girl next door.”

  “Really?” Certain of his success, he grinned.

  She nodded as she wiped her eyes. “Yeah.”

  He stroked the side of her face. “I’m sorry I was such a slow learner.”

  “Don’t worry about it.” She brushed at her cheeks and
cleared her throat. “In any case, it doesn’t matter.”

  “You’re right. We’re starting over. This time, we’ll—”

  She laid a hand on his arm. “That’s just it, Justin. There isn’t a ‘this time.’”

  “Wait a minute. What are you saying?”

  “We’re friends, Justin. As much as I appreciate hearing you say what you did, nothing else would work between us.”

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  “HOW can you say that?” he demanded.

  “Because it’s true,” Marissa said simply.

  “But you said—”

  “I know what I said, Justin. And while it’s true I’d hoped to be something more than your college friend, those sparks never took hold. Rather than become disappointed and bitter, I accepted things as they were and moved on. You certainly did. Between marriage and med school, you created a life for yourself, too.”

  “That was then. This is now. And now I can say there are plenty of sparks between us.”

  Her face warmed as she remembered their kiss. “I’ll admit we have a few embers—”

  “Embers, hell! We could have started a bonfire!”

  “The point is, Justin, good friends don’t form good intimate relationships. Look at Rachel and Ross. They—”

  “For God’s sake, Mari, Rachel and Ross are television characters. Of course they had issues, problems and rocky spots. Without those, there wouldn’t have been a show to watch. Reality is far different than a sitcom.”

  “And the reality is, how many couples remain on good terms after they’ve split up?” she asked. He started to speak, but she pressed on. “Are you still good friends with your ex-wife?”

  His mouth closed with a decided snap. “I’m right, and you know it,” she added.

  “What makes you think you’ll have a longer-lasting marriage with someone you’ve just met instead of with someone you’ve known for years?”

  “I don’t have any guarantees, but if you and I ever went our separate ways, I would lose a dear friend as well as a husband,” she said quietly. “The hole you’d leave in my life is too great to risk. Having your friendship is better than having nothing. I made my decision long ago and I won’t change my mind, Justin. I can’t.”

 
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