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His long awaited bride, p.4

His Long-Awaited Bride, page 4

 

His Long-Awaited Bride
 


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  “Travis,” Marissa corrected.

  He shrugged. “Whatever. It rained last night, so I suppose he spread his coat across a puddle to keep your shoes from getting wet.”

  “No, but he had an umbrella.”

  Considering the weather forecast hadn’t given decent odds for moisture, he was marginally impressed. “A regular Boy Scout.”

  “Jealous?”

  He glanced at her to see the question in her green eyes that reminded him of sparkling emeralds. “Hardly. Although I thought you liked to walk in the rain.”

  He hadn’t planned to sound accusatory, but somehow he had. Probably because he could remember several Saturday afternoons when the two of them had ambled along the park’s walking path during a heavy drizzle just so she could enjoy the fresh air. He’d agreed, not because he enjoyed getting soaked down to his skivvies but because there had been something so childlike about the experience. Revisiting his childhood wasn’t something he did often, but once in a while the stress of his profession got to be overwhelming. For the length of those walks he could forget that he held people’s lives in his hands, that some people simply couldn’t be saved.

  “I do when I’m dressed for the occasion, but not when I’m wearing a dress and heels.”

  She had a point.

  “You know, dear,” Lucy interjected, “your Travis sounds wonderful. Did you have a good time?”

  She didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

  “Is he the one?”

  Justin’s ears perked as he waited for her answer. The fact that she hesitated meant that she had doubts or at least some reservations.

  Reservations were good. If he’d listened to his inner warnings about Chandra, he could have avoided a heap of trouble in his life. As Marissa’s friend for many years, he was bound and determined to save her some grief, if he could.

  “It’s too soon to tell,” she finished smoothly.

  He let out the breath he’d been holding.

  “Don’t rush into anything,” Lucy said in a far-away voice. “I know you aren’t getting younger and people like to talk about a woman’s biological clock ticking, but it doesn’t hurt to be positively sure about a decision.”

  “Here, here!” Justin chimed in, refusing to let Marissa’s glare intimidate him.

  “Although,” Lucy continued as if he hadn’t spoken, “I’ve never been able to understand why you two have never gotten together.”

  “We are together.” Marissa sounded puzzled. “I met Travis a few weeks ago.”

  “Not him. You and Justin.”

  Justin nearly swallowed his tongue. From Marissa’s sudden intake of breath, he knew she’d experienced the same reaction. “Us?” she squeaked.

  Us? he echoed in his mind. Where would Lucy get an idea like that?

  And yet the idea didn’t send him recoiling in horror. Yes, they spent several evenings a week in each other’s company and had ever since he’d moved to Hope and discovered that Marissa lived here, too. They’d also gone to dinner and the movies whenever a new film had come to town, but those had always been platonic outings. More often than not, they went Dutch, although there had been a few times when he’d left his billfold in his scrub suit at the hospital and Mari had paid for their hamburgers and movie tickets.

  But he’d always paid her back. Hadn’t he? He frowned, trying to recall the circumstances, then decided they didn’t matter. What was more important was understanding how Lucy had jumped to her conclusion.

  “What made you think that?” he asked, curious to hear her answer.

  “You spend a lot of time together,” Lucy said, clearly oblivious to the charged atmosphere swirling around the two people in question. “Look at how often you see each other at the hospital. And don’t forget all those evenings you drop by Marissa’s house. Don’t deny it because I see your car parked outside several times a week.”

  Lucy was right. Why had he never noticed how his “official” dates were scheduled into his life like appointments with his physical therapist, but he saw Marissa more often than not? While he was shocked and surprised by the notion, the mental picture it generated didn’t horrify him.

  Not one bit.

  “We’re just friends, Lucy. Justin isn’t my type.” Her firm tone couldn’t have made her opinion more clear. As far as she was concerned, the idea plainly fell beyond all realm of possibility.

  Instead of feeling reassured, his ego bristled. Just what type did she think he was?

  While they didn’t necessarily like the same things—he preferred coffee over her tea; she liked golf while he was happier playing basketball or football; she favored spicy foods while they gave him heartburn—they got along well. They might have differing opinions, but he always felt as if he could say what he thought without worrying if he would offend her. From their rousing discussions, he’d hazard to say that she did the same.

  But if she thought that smooth-talking snake-oil salesman Travis Pendleton was more her type than he was, then he would definitely have to work hard to convince her of how wrong she was.

  “And I’m not his type, either,” she added firmly. “If it weren’t for us both being in health care, we’d have nothing in common.”

  Nothing in common? He wanted to protest, but Lucy beat him to the punch.

  “Nonsense. Differences are good.” Lucy’s words slurred. “Don’t forget how well you both connect with each other. You’ve laid a strong foundation and it’s a shame you two haven’t built anything on it.”

  “I think you’re suffering from an overactive imagination,” Marissa stated kindly to her neighbor. “We’re only good friends. Even if we weren’t, Justin is a die-hard bachelor, so you’re wasting your time at playing matchmaker. Isn’t that right, Doctor?”

  Her description stung. A bachelor, yes, but die-hard? Not particularly. He might prefer to keep his relationships simple and uncomplicated, but Marissa’s version made him seem so…inflexible and stubborn, not to mention lonely.

  Contrary to what people might believe, he wanted the same things that every other man wanted—a cozy house and a warm wife. The problem was that he’d chosen poorly the first time and he dreaded a repeat of his mistake.

  He would have explained his reluctance to Lucy, but he was ready to wrap up both the procedure and the conversation that reminded him of lost dreams.

  “Okay, Lucy, we’re done.” Justin removed the needle from her spine and pressed a pad of gauze to the site. A sense of relief swept over him for accomplishing the task without another mishap. He’d officially scaled one more obstacle in his own healing process. As long as his good days outnumbered the bad ones, he intended to prove the specialist wrong. He’d already progressed further than initially expected.

  “Really? Now, that wasn’t so awful,” Lucy said. “I’ll have to be sure and tell Morris that he’s been worrying over nothing. He’s such a sweet husband, always fretting about me.”

  Knowing that Lucy had been a widow for at least ten years, he raised a questioning eyebrow at Marissa, who responded with a puzzled shrug.

  “He’s waiting outside, you know,” Lucy added dreamily.

  Marissa frowned. “Lucy,” she said hesitantly. “Your husband isn’t outside. He’s…”

  “Oh, that’s right. He went to the garden store because I need food for my roses, fertilizer for my flowers and mosquito spray. With all the moisture we’ve had, those pesky insects are quite bad this year. If you don’t mind, I’m rather tired and I’d like to sleep now.

  “And don’t you two worry about me,” Lucy added, as if sensing their concern. “Morris says I’m going to be just fine.”

  At a sudden loss for words—what would it hurt if remembering her husband gave her comfort?—Justin exchanged a final helpless glance with Marissa before he moved to a corner of the room to record his notes and lab orders. As he scribbled on the pages, he listened with half an ear to Marissa’s soft voice cautioning Lucy to lie quietly for at least an hour. From the older woman
s condition, he suspected Lucy would do so even without Marissa’s advice.

  “I want the usual cell counts, glucose and protein and culture,” he said as soon as Marissa joined him in the hallway. “I also want blood drawn for a West Nile virus test. And call me as soon as you have those results.”

  “West Nile?” she asked, clearly surprised by his request.

  “’Tis the season,” he quoted. “It’s early, I know, but when she mentioned mosquitoes, I thought of it.”

  “I’ll call as soon as I hear from the lab, but the West Nile test will take a couple of days.” She paused. “I’m a little surprised that she talked as if her husband was still alive.”

  “Me, too. Keep a close eye on her,” he said as he handed over the medical record.

  “I will.”

  His gaze landed on the pot of flowers remaining on the nurses’ counter and his mouth tightened in displeasure. He didn’t know why Mr. City Manager’s exorbitant display irritated him so much. If Pendleton wanted to spend hundreds of dollars on flowers, who was he to stop him from supporting the local economy? Yet irritate him it did.

  His irritation only grew when he saw the arrangement in Newland’s room, although he didn’t show it. But by the time he’d examined Newland and talked to his wife, he was well and truly sick of flowers.

  To add insult to injury, the sight of Marissa at the nurses’ station only reminded him of Lucy’s comments. “Call if anything changes,” he said more gruffly than necessary, before he disappeared into the nearby stairwell to escape the sweet aroma saturating the ICU. Unfortunately, he couldn’t escape the memory of Lucy’s words.

  I’ve never understood why you two have never gotten together…. Don’t forget how well you connect with each other…a strong foundation…

  Contrary to what Lucy thought, he knew exactly what they had. Their friendship had started on the first day of his French I class, when he’d slid into the chair next to a brown-haired girl with hazel eyes that turned deeper shades of blue or green, depending on her mood. She’d quietly listened during the lecture and acted as if she understood every word the professor had said, while he’d been completely lost.

  Marissa had helped him pass the course and throughout the rest of the semester he’d discovered that not only was she intelligent and possessed a soft heart, but she was also a good listener. Their mutual interest in medicine had cemented their friendship, although his path had led to med school and hers into nursing.

  They had exchanged Christmas cards at that point, although his had been the e-mail variety and usually late. Those annual contacts had gradually dwindled and finally ended once he’d married Chandra Weaver. It was only after they’d both reconnected in Hope several years ago after his divorce that they’d caught up on each other’s lives. Since then, it had seemed as if they’d never been separated.

  What surprised him the most was Marissa’s single status—waiting, as she said, for the right man. Were the eligible fellows blind? But whether they were or not, he didn’t want her to make his same mistakes, so he did his best to keep a watchful eye on her prospects. It hadn’t been too difficult because in a town this size, everyone knew everyone else’s business.

  Unfortunately, Travis Pendleton wasn’t a home-grown boy. He was a new arrival and although people in his circles spoke favorably of him, if something was too good to be true, it usually was.

  Normally, he wouldn’t worry about Marissa being taken in by a handsome face or sappy romantic gestures, but now he wasn’t so sure. She hadn’t actually confirmed that she and Terrific Trevor were an item, but she hadn’t denied it, either. She’d simply declared that Pendleton was a friend, but that was how she described him, too.

  Something about the situation was…unsettling. Yes, that was the word. Unsettling. He had never considered himself a creature of habit or a person who resisted change, but he didn’t want to rock the current boat when it was sailing along quite nicely.

  And yet….his internal early warning system suggested that change was in the wind.

  Impulsively, he reversed direction and bounded back up the stairs. Fortunately, he found Marissa working alone in their small medication room.

  “Do you have plans tonight?” he asked without preamble.

  She looked up from her supply list. “Back so soon?”

  “Do you have plans tonight?” he repeated.

  “Yes, I do. Why?”

  “Change them.”

  She stared at him as if he’d grown two heads. “Hardly,” she retorted. “Travis is coming over.”

  “What time?”

  “After his meeting ends. Probably around nine.”

  “Then I’ll be there at eight.”

  A worried wrinkle appeared on her brow. “Is something wrong?”

  Hell, yes, there was something wrong. The problem was, he didn’t know what it was.

  Actually, he did know. He didn’t like the idea of Marissa keeping company with a man who was, as far as he was concerned, completely wrong for her. Pendleton and Marissa traveled in two different circles and forcing them into one was a situation that spelled disaster.

  “I’ll come over at eight,” he repeated.

  “What for?” she asked, wary.

  If he admitted that he wanted to warn her about rushing into a relationship, she’d probably tie his stethoscope into a knot—around his neck. He quickly cast for another excuse and reeled it in. “To talk about us.”

  Her eyes widened in surprise, then cleared as she shook her head. “There is no ‘us,’ Justin. We’re friends and have been for a long time.”

  “Lucy doesn’t think so—”

  “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she interrupted crossly. “It doesn’t matter what Lucy thinks. As much as I love her, she sees what she wants to see. She might believe that we’d make the perfect couple, but if it hasn’t happened by now, it isn’t going to happen. So don’t give it another thought.”

  A long pause followed as he pondered why her outright refusal to try Lucy’s comment on for size disappointed him. He at least was willing to consider the possibilities before deciding yea or nay. But if Marissa wasn’t open to the idea, then there wasn’t any point, was there?

  “As long as we’re both on the same page,” he said slowly. “No misunderstandings.”

  “Believe me, there aren’t any,” she said pointedly. “Our situation couldn’t be clearer if it were spelled out in marquee lights. Now, if you’re finished, I have work to do.” Immediately, she turned her attention back to the paper in her hand.

  Another man would have taken her at face value, but he swore—swore—that she’d sounded strange, even wistful, which didn’t make any sense at all.

  “OK, but I’m still coming over at eight.”

  Her startled gaze met his. “What for?”

  “We’ve always been honest with each other,” he reminded her. “Haven’t we?”

  “Yes.” She sounded cautious.

  “You can tell me all about Travis.”

  She folded her arms. “You won’t listen.”

  “I will. I promise.”

  “Before or after you warn me to look before I leap? To check him out thoroughly? To take things slow?”

  “Okay, okay. I’ll listen before I say a word. The point is, he didn’t do the flower thing out of the goodness of his heart. The guy’s after something.” Sex, most likely, he grumbled to himself.

  “Thank you for that insight,” she muttered. “If you’re trying to warn me, you’re too late.”

  His protective instincts erupted like Mt. St. Helens. “Don’t tell me you’ve already slept with him.”

  Surprise instantly appeared on her face, only to be replaced a second later by cool disdain. “Whether I did or didn’t doesn’t concern you, Justin. I already know what he wants.”

  “You do?” He paused, waiting for her to explain herself, but when she didn’t, he pressed on. “You can’t keep me hanging, Marissa.”

  She faced him squa
rely. “If you must know this very moment, I’ll tell you.” Her pause lasted only the length of a heartbeat. “He wants me to marry him.”

  CHAPTER THREE

  MARISSA wondered what mischievous imp had taken control of her tongue and allowed her to blurt out that half-truth. Yes, she’d wanted to shock him, surprise Justin, and get him to lighten up on his big-brother routine, but she’d never imagined that she’d render him completely speechless and looking like a landed trout.

  If she truly wanted to make him suffer, she’d walk away and let him stew until that evening, but she couldn’t risk the start of any rumors. Now, as the seconds stretched out, she wished she’d chosen her words more carefully. She didn’t believe in bad luck or jinxes, but the situation with Travis was still too new and too tenuous for her to start shopping for wedding gowns or to allow people to think she was.

  “He proposed?” he asked before she could find the right words to retract her statement.

  “Yes and no.”

  “You can’t have it both ways, Mari. He either did or he didn’t.”

  As much as she wanted to clear the air, she hated having to explain this. “If you must know, we discussed marriage, but only in general terms.”

  “Then he didn’t propose.”

  She didn’t understand his utter look of relief. After all, what difference should it make to him? “Technically, no. As I mentioned, we were talking and—”

  “About what?”

  She frowned at his clipped tone. “About everything—families, settling down, kids, etcetera. Then he commented on how well we got along after such a short time of knowing each other and that we should think about tying the knot someday.”

  Travis had spoken lightheartedly, and she’d responded in kind, but it had to be a good sign if he was already thinking, however remotely, along the lines of a committed relationship.

  “Someday.”

  “Yes, someday. Although, to be honest, it wouldn’t surprise me if ‘someday’ isn’t very far in the future.” She hoped.

 
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