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His long awaited bride, p.3

His Long-Awaited Bride, page 3


His Long-Awaited Bride

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  “Sorry to be such a bother.” Lucy smiled wanly as she spoke in a quivery voice that was completely unlike the vital woman Marissa had known for several years.

  Marissa forced herself to act cheerfully. “No bother at all. We’re here to take care of you. In the meantime, we’re going to move you to a real bed, but I don’t want you to do a thing. Just lie there and let us do the work.”

  On the count of three, they transferred Lucy carefully onto the other mattress. As soon as the ER nurse left, Marissa hurried to make Lucy as comfortable as possible with an extra pillow and warm blankets, conscious of Justin watching from his place near the foot of the bed.

  As Marissa hooked Lucy to the usual monitors and checked her vital signs, she quizzed the elderly lady. “How long have you been feeling poorly? You should have said something to me last night,” she chided gently, noting the woman’s elevated temperature.

  “It’s nothing really.” Lucy tried to wave her hand, then stopped, as if the motion required too much effort. “I’ve had a terribly bad headache that won’t disappear, as well as a stiff neck that’s gotten worse over the last day or so. Some nausea, too. I think it’s just a bad case of the flu, although no one will listen to me.” She cast a baleful glance in Justin’s direction.

  Marissa knew that his suspicions ran to something more serious than a touch of influenza, which was why he’d ordered the spinal tap. “We’ll find out if it’s the flu or not,” she said cheerfully.

  “I’m going to check on your lab results from the ER,” Justin interrupted, “and then I’ll be back. Okay?”

  Lucy nodded as she closed her eyes. “I believe I’ll nap in the meantime.”

  “Go right ahead.” He met Marissa’s gaze and inclined his head toward the door in a silent request for her to follow.

  “Keep a close eye on her,” he said in a low voice as soon as they stood in the hallway. “The ER staff reported that she seemed confused at times. You’ll know better than anyone if she shows the same signs here.”

  Marissa nodded, feeling guilty because she hadn’t noticed how sick Lucy had been the previous night. She almost said as much, but kept silent. She wouldn’t give Justin any grounds for replacing her as Lucy’s nurse.

  Justin laid a hand on her shoulder. “It’s not your fault, you know.”

  His uncanny perception caught her off guard. “What?”

  “It’s not your fault,” he repeated. “Don’t feel guilty that you didn’t see how ill she’s been.”

  “Who said I did?” she prevaricated.

  “No one. I can tell by the look on your face.” He paused. “Lucy is one of those people who suffer in silence, so don’t beat yourself up for not noticing her condition. Okay?” He tipped up her chin so that her gaze met his.

  “Okay,” she agreed.

  “Good.” He sounded satisfied. “As soon as you’re ready, I’ll get started.”

  She nodded. “Give me a couple of minutes to set up.” By the time she’d returned with the supplies, Justin had the latest lab report in his hand and was explaining the procedure to the elderly lady.

  “It won’t be very pleasant,” he warned with an apologetic smile.

  Lucy closed her eyes and nodded. “I’m not feeling particularly chipper right now, so anything you do will just blend in with all the other aches and pains.”

  He patted her forearm as he stared down at her with the compassionate gaze that Marissa had seen him give his patients so often. “We’ll get to the bottom of this. I promise.”

  “Thank you,” Lucy whispered, before her eyes glimmered with unshed tears and she sniffled. “You’ll think me a silly old woman,” she said in a wobbly voice that testified how strongly his conviction had touched her heart.

  “You’ll be weeding those petunias before long,” Justin said with a wink.

  A lump formed in Marissa’s throat as she set the LP tray on the bedside table. She’d always dealt with her patients and their problems objectively, but it bothered her to see this seemingly unstoppable woman in such a state. Justin’s fierce determination was as reassuring to her as it clearly was to Lucy. Fighting the urge to grab a tissue for herself out of the box he’d handed to his patient while knowing that if she did, she’d be sidelined before she could say “Intensive Care,” she marveled at his ability to always say the right thing to his patients. Lucy wouldn’t have been satisfied if he’d told her not to worry. Unlike some people, she was the sort who wanted answers, even if they weren’t good, and Justin had, in effect, promised to deliver.

  However, even if Lucy had been content with a platitude, her physician still wouldn’t leave a stone unturned when dealing with her medical problems. Marissa wondered if his patients really knew how deeply he threw himself into their care; most probably didn’t have a clue as to the lengths he went to for any one of them. If the answers weren’t obvious, he spent hours researching their symptoms and contacting specialists.

  Little wonder that he had no life outside the hospital. After his wife of eighteen months had packed her bags and left him on the same day he’d graduated from med school, he’d slept more often in doctors’ lounges than in his own bed.

  Come to think of it, he’d probably slept more often on her sofa than in his own bed, too.

  “I have complete faith in you both,” Lucy said, as she blotted her eyes dry. “Now, tell me again about how you’re going to poke a needle in my spine.”

  His raised eyebrow and pained expression as he glanced at Marissa suggested that he didn’t appreciate the way Lucy had broken down his explanation. He’d obviously forgotten that age had given Lucy the right to plain speaking because, as she’d said more than once, being on the downhill slope of life meant that if she didn’t speak her mind, she might never have another opportunity. At her age, she couldn’t count on having a second chance to say what needed to be said.

  “Actually, I’ll be sliding the needle. Not poking.”

  Lucy waved her hand. “From where I’m sitting, it’s the same difference. Either way you look at it, I’ve got a sharp object stuck in my back.”

  He chuckled. “True, but it won’t be for long.”

  “And don’t worry,” Marissa came in. “Justin will make the experience as painless as possible.”

  “I’d appreciate it,” Lucy said fervently.

  Marissa gave her neighbor’s hand a final squeeze, then arranged the table so that Justin’s supplies would be positioned just the way he liked them. She’d worked alongside him enough times to create a routine that had become second nature. And because she didn’t have to ponder his every move, she paid more attention to his conversation with his patient. He outlined everything in the right mix of medical and lay terms for Lucy to know, step by step, what would happen during the next few minutes.

  As she watched Lucy visibly relax and the heart monitor reflect similar changes, she guessed that the soothing timbre of his voice was just as responsible as his matter-of-fact explanations. Although she knew that a spinal tap wasn’t quite as simple as he made it sound, his voice carried such certainty and authority that even the most nervous patient’s worries would have faded away.

  Truthfully, though, Justin was the best of the best—even with a hand that had never fully recovered from the injuries he’d received in a plane crash—and she wasn’t admitting that out of loyalty. Having seen her share of physicians whose skill ranged from the average to the exceptional, she knew in which physician she’d place her complete trust. Lucy couldn’t have asked for anyone better.

  “If those are all of your questions,” Justin said, signaling Marissa to move Lucy into a recumbent position with her back toward him, “we’ll get started.”

  “All right, but I think you’re making too much fuss over a headache and a stiff neck,” Lucy grumbled, although her tone lacked any spark of conviction. “I only came to the ER to get stronger pain relief.”

  “Taking care of my patients isn’t making a fuss,” Justin remarked as he donned h
is sterile gloves.

  “How long have you felt like this?” Marissa asked, aware that Lucy had evaded her earlier question. Three days ago, Lucy had been puttering among her flowers and although Marissa had only waved and chatted with her over the fence for a few minutes the previous night, Lucy had seemed fine.

  “About a week.”

  “A week?” Marissa was horrified. Her guilt for not noticing Lucy’s deterioration grew to epic proportions until it threatened to choke her. “And you didn’t say anything?”

  “Oh, dearie. When you get to my age, you try to ignore as much as you can. Why, if I called you or ran to the doctor every time I had an ache or a pain, I’d be wearing out the furniture in Justin’s waiting room.”

  “I wish you would wear out those chairs,” he replied as his sidelong glance at Marissa reminded her of their earlier conversation about not feeling guilty. “My waiting room needs a face-lift,” he continued.

  “A face-lift?” Marissa echoed. “Wow. I can’t believe you actually admitted it.”

  “I’m not completely oblivious to my surroundings,” he said defensively. “Pea-green chairs and gold wallpaper aren’t exactly soothing colors to healthy people, much less sick ones.”

  Marissa stared at him in awe. “You actually notice things like that?”

  “Of course I do, but if you’re going to start nagging me again about how it’s time I paint my house and buy matching furniture…” His voice held a warning note.

  “Why would I do that?” she asked innocently as she mentally added neckties to the list. “Every time I mention it, my suggestion falls on deaf ears, so I won’t waste my breath.” For the last few years, she’d tried to convince him to put his own stamp on the house he’d bought when he’d moved to Hope. A man of his standing in the community needed more than a bed and a dresser, a kitchen table with two chairs and a sofa courtesy of someone’s garage sale. But, as he liked to remind her, he spent more time at the hospital and her house than his, so what did he care if his walls were bare and he didn’t fill every nook and cranny with furniture?

  “Good idea.”

  While Justin raised the bed to the right height for him to work, Marissa helped Lucy draw her knees to her abdomen and flex her neck before she covered her exposed back with a sterile drape.

  “This may be cold.” Justin prepped the skin over Lucy’s spine with antiseptic-soaked, cotton-tipped applicators.

  Lucy’s sharp intake of breath suggested that she agreed. “I really don’t want to think about what you’re doing,” she began, “so to keep my mind off the idea of your using me as a pin cushion, I want to chat.”

  “What about?” Justin asked.

  “The flowers.”

  “Flowers?” Marissa asked absentmindedly as she tried to anticipate Justin’s needs. “Your petunias look wonderful.”

  “Not those. I’m asking about the ones in the nurses’ station.”

  “Oh.” Marissa was beginning to hate flowers or any mention thereof. “Those.”

  “Yes, those. I caught the distinct scent of roses, even though I didn’t see any.”

  Marissa inwardly sighed. Travis’s actions may have been sweet, but they were certainly causing quite a stir. “We did have roses earlier,” she admitted, “but they aren’t here anymore.”

  “Ah,” Lucy said, a satisfied set on her face. “I thought so. I may be old, but my nose still works perfectly.”

  “Actually,” Justin added smoothly as he injected lidocaine into the area around Lucy’s spine, “Marissa got all sorts of flowers. It was quite exciting. Wasn’t it, Mari?”

  She frowned at him, wishing she could tell him to stuff a sock in it. If she wanted to discuss the meaning behind the flowers with Lucy—and she did—she’d rather do so without an audience. But he’d brought it up and now she had no choice….

  Justin raised an eyebrow as he waited for Marissa to explain the details. He wasn’t particularly eager to address the issue of those blasted flowers because he had a feeling that he wouldn’t like what he’d hear, but if the conversation kept Lucy’s mind off what he was doing, then he’d suffer through it.

  Maybe he was also a glutton for punishment, because he wanted to know exactly what had prompted Mr. Money Bags to set his sights on Marissa. Travis Pendleton didn’t seem the type to be interested in a working girl, not when rumors abounded that moving out of the city manager’s position in the small town of Hope and into a similar job in a major metropolitan area was the first stop on his goal to reach the state senate. A fashion model or a business tycoon’s daughter seemed more his style.

  “Seven bouquets showed up for me today,” Marissa admitted as her cheeks turned a dusky pink. “They came as quite a…um, surprise.”

  Justin thought it odd that she almost sounded pained to claim them. Most women would have been floating three feet off the ground under similar circumstances, and he was curious why Marissa seemed almost embarrassed by the gesture. Then again, Pendleton probably hadn’t figured out that Marissa didn’t like to draw attention to herself. If the man had possessed any inkling of Marissa’s character, he would have known seven was overkill. Unfortunately, discussing the man’s shortcomings would have to wait until he had finished with Lucy. He simply couldn’t afford to let his attention wander too far off the mark.

  At one time, he could have gone through the motions of this procedure with his eyes closed. However, ever since he’d broken his hand in the plane crash that had killed one of Hope’s physicians and injured a few others, it had taken a lot of physical therapy to get to the point where he could even perform a spinal tap. While he was pleased that he’d regained eighty percent of his preaccident dexterity, he hated that he still hadn’t reached the hundred percent mark. Lucy, or any other patient, didn’t deserve to have a physician who couldn’t perform at peak efficiency. If he didn’t carry out this procedure flawlessly, he could do lasting damage.

  As if aware of the stress he’d placed himself under, his hand cramped as he picked up the needle off the sterile supply tray and it slid out of his stiff fingers. Fortunately, it landed back on the sterile tray and not on the floor.

  For an instant he stared at the scene, aware of Marissa hovering nearby. To her credit, she didn’t cast a pitying glance at him, like so many other nurses would have. Neither did she suggest that he step aside for someone else.

  He flexed his right hand to ease the cramp as he met her steady gaze. The faith in her green eyes and the smile on her Cupid’s-bow mouth gave him the confidence boost he needed.

  Heaving a wordless sigh, he picked up the needle again with his gloved fingers and hefted it in his hand. He could do this. He would do this.

  As soon as the needle went into the subarachnoid space with a satisfying pop, he relaxed. Unbidden, his attention returned to Marissa, whose wide smile and thumbs-up sign was more than enough reward.

  “They must be from that young man who came by last night.” Lucy’s comment drew him back to the conversation.

  “They are,” Marissa confirmed as her pixielike face turned a darker shade of pink and highlighted her cheekbones.

  “What a nice gesture. He’s certainly thoughtful.”

  “Yes, he is.”

  Justin wanted to point out that if Travis was as thoughtful as they believed, he wouldn’t have sent more flowers than some people received at their funerals. Neither would he have sent them to a unit where flowers weren’t permitted and where the potential of causing problems for Marissa was so great.

  “I noticed he held the car door for you,” Lucy commented.

  “Why, Lucy, were you watching me?” Marissa sounded horrified, which rankled Justin. Just what had they been doing that she hadn’t wanted Lucy, or anyone else, to see?

  “Of course, dear. One can’t be too careful about strangers arriving in the neighborhood. He has exquisite manners, which is quite unusual in this day and age.”

  “Yes, it is,” Marissa agreed.

  Manners. Justin frowned
. What was it with women? They claimed to want independence and all that, but then they got all gooey-eyed because someone helped them with their coat or opened a door. Men simply couldn’t win. They were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t. He knew because his wife—his ex-wife—had taught him that particular lesson well.

  Even so, he’d spent enough time with Marissa over the years to know that he hadn’t treated her like one of the guys. He may not have been overly attentive, but he had put his mother’s teachings to good use.

  “I wouldn’t say that holding doors open for a date is so unusual,” he said as he removed the stylet and spinal fluid dripped out of the needle and into the collection tubes. The fluid was clear and not cloudy or bloody, which came as a relief.

  “You’d be surprised,” Marissa said grimly.

  While he didn’t believe Travis, the Wonder Date, had actually done anything out of the ordinary, it didn’t hurt to find out exactly what had impressed them. One never knew what piece of trivial information might come in handy, not that he intended to put it to use anytime soon.

  “What do women expect from men these days?” he asked.

  “My goodness, Justin,” Lucy said weakly, although her surprise was still obvious, “don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how to court a lady.”

  “I haven’t forgotten,” he protested. “I date on occasion.”

  “Oh, really?” Marissa sounded skeptical and she had every right to be. Medicine and his patients came first in his life and he only fit in the odd date or two on the fringes. He usually spent his spare time playing basketball with the guys at the gym or watching movies at Marissa’s.

  “Really,” he affirmed. “I went to the Valentine’s Day ball with a date. Cam proposed to Dixie, remember? And before that was the annual hospital Christmas party. Don’t forget the end of harvest festival coming up in August. I always bring a guest to that.”

  “Three dates in a year?” Lucy asked, incredulous. “No wonder you’re still single.”

  “I’m positive I’ve gone out more than three times,” he protested. “I just can’t remember them. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to hear what women expect. What, exactly, did Trent do?”

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