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His long awaited bride, p.5

His Long-Awaited Bride, page 5


His Long-Awaited Bride

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  “Rushing things a bit, aren’t you?”

  “I’m not rushing at all. He hasn’t asked and I haven’t answered,” she reminded him. “As I said, we’re in the early stages of our relationship. So I don’t want you meddling or interfering in any way.”

  “Me, meddle or interfere?”

  “Don’t look so innocent, Justin. You know I’m right.”

  “I don’t meddle,” he said, clearly affronted. “I only act as a sounding board, as your voice of reason.”

  “Well, stifle it,” she ordered. “This could be a good thing for me and I don’t want you mucking it up in any way, shape or form. And that means no internet credit checks, no trying to hunt down past girlfriends or previous employers, nothing.”

  “But, Mari—”

  “I’m serious. Nothing. I’m a big girl and can make up my own mind. If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”

  He frowned, then replaced it with a look of resignation. “Okay.”

  “Good. Then it’s settled.”

  He turned to leave, then stopped. “If he did propose, would you say yes?”

  He was certainly tenacious, she had to admit. “Now who’s rushing things?”

  “Just answer my question, Mari. Would you accept?”

  Mari stared at the man she’d known for nearly twelve years. The same man who popped into her fantasies during weak moments. The same man who would have made her the happiest woman alive if he’d ever noticed her as a woman and not just as “one of the guys.” It was so very easy to picture him seated across an intimate table for two, complete with roses and candlelight, as he placed a tiny velvet box in her hand.

  But that would never happen. The years had marched on and she’d learned one important thing during her twenty-nine years on this earth—it was futile to wait for the impossible or the improbable.

  She fisted her hands to stop herself from tracing the hard lines of his face. She’d never allowed herself to touch him other than in a most impersonal way, and she mourned the loss, but some things in life just weren’t meant to be. She couldn’t afford to be foolish and wait for romantic sparks to appear from nowhere.

  Would she accept Travis’s proposal if one came along?

  “Yes,” she said quietly. “Yes, I would.”

  “What are you doing here?” Marissa whispered angrily when she saw Justin standing in the night-time shadows on her porch.

  “Sorry, I’m late,” he said without a single note of true apology in his voice as he picked up an excited Toby and scratched behind the Cairn terrier’s ears. “Sick patient.”

  “I already have company,” she ground out.

  He winked. “I don’t mind.”

  “Well, I do,” she retorted. “You were supposed to be here at eight. It’s almost ten.”

  “Can I help it if duty called first?”

  “No,” she grumbled, aware that when he was on call, he usually did get called. “Although I don’t know why you bothered to come at all. Didn’t we cover everything earlier today?”

  “Yeah, but you can’t blame me for wanting to meet the guy who has you all aflutter, can you?”

  “Oh, I suppose not,” she said grudgingly. “Does it have to be today, though?”

  “No time like the present.”

  She grabbed Toby and tucked him under her arm. “Okay, but you can’t stay long.” Inviting Travis into her home for the first time had been nerve-racking enough, without worrying what Justin might say or do.

  “I won’t. Wouldn’t want to interfere in the course of true love.” He winked again.

  Marissa rolled her eyes. “And you won’t give him the third degree?”

  He held up three fingers. “I solemnly swear.”

  “All right, then. Let’s get this over with. Just remember. Five minutes and you’ll leave.”

  “Sure thing, Mari.”

  “Wait here while I put Toby in his kennel.”

  “You’re kenneling Toby? What’s he done?” He grinned. “Carried your panties out of the bedroom while company was here?”

  “Thank goodness, no.” Knowing how Toby liked to chew on silk, she’d made sure all her underwear lay out of Toby’s canine reach. “Travis isn’t fond of dogs.”

  Justin rubbed the Cairn’s head. “Not fond of this heartbreaker? Impossible.”

  “Yeah, well, the feeling is mutual. Toby’s been grumbling at him ever since he walked through the door.”


  She wasn’t going to admit to Justin that she was disappointed by the lack of rapport between her pet and her boyfriend.

  “He probably just doesn’t like Travis’s cologne,” she said defensively.

  “Could be.” He reached for Toby. “Give him to me. He’ll behave.”

  She hesitated. All she needed was for her dog to send Travis running for the hills. She’d been afraid of what Justin would do, but hadn’t considered Toby causing problems, too. “Are you sure?”

  “Is ice skating an Olympic event?”

  “All right, but if he growls just once, he’s taking time out in his kennel.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” He ruffled Toby’s fur. “Hear that, buddy? The boss has spoken. We both have to be on our best behavior.”

  Toby answered by licking Justin’s chin.

  Travis’s first visit was turning out better and better, she thought glumly. Leading the way into her living room, with Toby trotting happily beside Justin, she performed the introductions. They shook hands and retreated to opposite sides of the room, like boxers going to their respective corners.

  How odd that she would see their actions in that way. She hoped it wouldn’t indicate how the next few minutes would go. If she had her way, though, Justin would be gone in less time than it took to take a blood pressure.

  Determined to hurry her momentarily unwelcome guest home before he said something she would regret, she grabbed the DVD lying on the coffee table.

  “Justin stopped by to borrow a movie,” she said as she passed it to him without looking. “Here you go. Happy viewing.”

  Justin didn’t take the hint to leave. Instead, he sank into an easy chair and motioned for Toby to jump into his lap before he glanced at the title. And grinned.

  “Just what I wanted to see,” he said as he scratched behind the Cairn’s ears. “Casanova. Nothing like a good chick flick to cure insomnia. Thanks, Mari.”

  She’d given him Casanova? Travis would either see through Justin’s flimsy excuse for dropping by and realize that he was being checked out or wonder what sort of man Dr. St. James actually was. It would serve Justin right if Travis thought he was gay.

  “If you want a different movie…”

  “No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “This one’s fine.”

  To Marissa’s dismay, he leaned back in the chair as if settling in for a long visit. “What do you think about the Cubs’ chance to win the pennant this year?”

  “My money’s on the Yankees,” Travis replied.

  “They’re a good team,” Justin admitted. “I’d like to see someone else on top for a change.”

  While the two discussed the ins and outs of professional baseball, Marissa took a moment to study them.

  Travis was light to Justin’s dark. He had blue eyes and sandy-colored hair that even at this time of night lay in perfect order. Justin’s hair, on the other hand, was tousled, as if he’d run his hands through it a few times.

  Justin had obviously gone home at some point because he’d traded his blue shirt, black slacks and dress shoes for faded blue jeans, a red T-shirt and scuffed tennis shoes. He might look like a successful physician between eight and five, but after that comfort—not style—dictated his choice of attire. As far as she knew, no one seemed to mind that he looked more like Mr. July on a handyman pin-up calendar than a doctor. The patients were usually too ill and too grateful for his services after normal office hours to care. As for the staff, most of the nurses prayed for a reason to see those luscious b
uns encased in snug-fitting denim.

  On the other hand, Travis still wore his dark blue suit, which wasn’t surprising as he’d come directly from work to her house. The only concession to the time was his slightly loosened silk tie, which had probably cost as much as his suit. Idly, she wondered if she’d ever see Travis wearing anything except business clothes but, then, he was a public figure in the community and clearly dressed the part. For a man who planned to move to the top, appearances were everything.

  While both men were handsome, Justin’s dark coloring was more of a turn-on to her than Travis’s lighter complexion, and she immediately chided herself for the disloyal thought. A man’s character was more important than his looks. Travis’s fairness aside, he was an attractive, thoughtful man.

  “How are things down at City Hall?”

  Justin’s question pulled her out of her daydream. They’d obviously had a congenial conversation because she couldn’t detect any undercurrents of tension. Thank goodness. Maybe, just maybe, this wouldn’t turn out as horribly as she had feared.

  “Busy,” Travis replied. “We’re in the business of preparing our next fiscal year’s budget. As I was telling Marissa, I’ll be crunching numbers for the next few weeks.”

  “Really?” Justin appeared interested as he stroked Toby’s soft fur. “You don’t just adjust last year’s figures to cover increased expenses and inflation?”

  “Oh, it’s far more complicated than that,” he said airily. “I’m going through every line item to determine its importance. It’s crucial for the city to set aside funds for those rainy-day expenses and to do that, we have to cut out the waste. But, then, you probably don’t do that with your medical practice, do you?”

  “To a certain extent we do,” Justin admitted mildly. “Medicine is becoming more of a business all the time. With insurance issues, federal regulations and reimbursements, it’s sometimes difficult to find the happy medium between going into debt and providing good-quality health care.”

  “Unfortunately, the city doesn’t have your same luxury of being able to raise office fees to cover any shortfalls.”

  Marissa heard the challenge in Travis’s voice and mentally cringed. Most people didn’t realize just how strongly Justin felt about the high cost of health care. He took great pains to keep prices down for his patients and often treated his poor, uninsured patients for pennies on the dollar. To hear someone’s general assumption that physicians cared little about finances was bound to strike off a few of his sparks. Before she could interject a defense on his behalf, Justin responded.

  “Actually, our fees are based on current reimbursement rates,” Justin said in the specificly mild tone that signaled the complete opposite to those who knew him. “In my practice, we don’t set those arbitrarily. And if we did, that would be as popular a move as when the government, whether it’s city, county, state or federal, increases our taxes to raise more money.”

  Travis nodded. “It’s difficult for people to accept having to pay more for the same service, but it’s often a fact of life.”

  At that moment Toby rolled onto his back as his way of begging for a tummy rub. Justin chuckled as he obliged. “Beggar,” he teased. “Say, Travis, has Toby performed any of his tricks for you?”

  Marissa momentarily relaxed as the tense moment eased.

  “No,” Travis answered.

  “Too bad. Toby’s a smart dog. If you feed him a few Cheerios, he’ll be your friend for life.” He scratched the sandy-colored Cairn’s tummy harder. “Won’t you, buddy?”

  “Travis isn’t fond of dogs,” Marissa mentioned, wishing she’d sat close enough to Justin to deliver a warning kick to his shins.

  “I like dogs,” Travis corrected. “I just don’t believe they belong indoors. No offense, Marissa. It’s a personal preference thing.”

  “I understand.” Surely, given time, her well-behaved Toby would win him over.

  Travis stretched his long legs and crossed his ankles. “The ones that really drive me crazy are the ones that yip at anything and everything.”

  “Toby doesn’t yip,” Justin said. “He’s been a great watchdog for Marissa, which is good for a woman living alone.”

  “True, but a state-of-the-art security system doesn’t shed hair on the furniture.”

  “It doesn’t curl up beside you at night, either,” Marissa said.

  “No, but I can think of something better than a four-legged fur ball to curl up with at night.”

  As Travis directed his lazy grin in Marissa’s direction, the promise in his eyes made his thoughts all too plain. Heat crept up Marissa’s neck but rather than feel embarrassed, she was glad Justin had witnessed the exchange. She’d always wanted her old friend to see her as an attractive woman but he hadn’t. Maybe Travis’s blatant hint would open his eyes, because he’d have to be blind and deaf to miss the other man’s interest. She couldn’t have planned it better.

  She stole a glance in Justin’s direction, but he seemed far more engrossed in Toby than in Travis’s comments. Disappointed, she let out a deep breath. Better luck next time, she vowed.

  Justin had never considered himself a violent man, but right now he was itching to punch Pendleton’s face. What was he thinking of to give Marissa a blatant invitation to sleep together, and in front of a complete stranger? And both Lucy and Marissa thought the man held the corner on the manners market. Hah!

  The man certainly was proud of himself and his job, Justin decided. He wondered if Marissa had heard the nuances of their conversation and recognized Travis’s one-upmanship for what it was.

  He flexed his fingers, wishing he could send Pendleton packing. If the man made another inappropriate comment, he would.

  Toby suddenly squeaked and shifted positions as he stared up at Justin with confusion in his doggy eyes. Realizing he’d painfully pulled the dog’s hair, he straightened his fingers and patted the dog’s tummy. “Sorry, Toby,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

  Toby rolled onto his stomach, laid his head on Justin’s forearm and wore his most forlorn expression, as if he understood Justin’s frustrations. Perhaps he did. It certainly didn’t take a high IQ to deduce that Toby’s days with Marissa were numbered if Pendleton stayed in the picture. Barring a move to a new owner, Toby would be living in her backyard, looking in.

  Toby wouldn’t be the only one relegated to second-class citizen status. Justin would be there, too. Even if he remained friends with Marissa, their time together would be similar to the evening he was enduring now. He’d be the third wheel, the odd man out, the one who would go home alone while they would have each other. Pendleton would be the one to enjoy Marissa’s long legs wrapped around him. He would sink into her velvety softness, see her shining smile, soothe her hurts and listen to her confidences.

  Couldn’t she see that while Pendleton might be a decent sort, his attitude toward Toby proved that he wasn’t right for her?

  And who was?

  Justin didn’t know, but he was certain that it wasn’t Pendleton. As he covertly studied her face and the blush that the other man had put there, Justin thought of a dozen reasons why he should mind his own business and only one why he should not. Logically, those reasons overruled his desire to interfere, but suddenly it didn’t matter if he had only one or a hundred justifiable motives to meddle. His single excuse overshadowed all others.

  If Marissa chose to spend her life with Pendleton, Justin’s life would change forever, too. And he wasn’t ready for that to happen.

  “What have you done to yourself?” Marissa exclaimed as soon as Justin walked into the ICU the next morning.

  “Nothing, why?”

  “You look terrible.”

  “Really?” He tiredly rubbed the back of his neck. “My mirror told me I was quite presentable.”

  “You are,” she said. “Your hair is combed, you’re clean-shaven and your clothes are pressed, but you must have been awake all night.”

I thought I didn’t have circles under my eyes.”

  “You don’t,” she said. “You’re one of those lucky people who doesn’t get circles or bags under his eyes.”

  “Then how can you tell when no one else can?”

  “There’s something about your expression—I can’t explain it. I suppose it’s a combination of your smile not seeming as bright or as relaxed as usual and your eyes aren’t as sparkly and cantankerous.”

  “Cantankerous? Thanks for making me sound like I’m ninety-five,” he said wryly.

  “Okay, okay. Make that ‘lively’ instead.”

  “Lively is good.”

  She smiled. “I’m glad you approve. What kept you out all night? You left my house at eleven. Couldn’t sleep?”

  “Believe me, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to. Let’s see.” He ticked his reasons off on his hand. “The uncontrolled diabetic, which as you know, was early in the evening. Then I had the possible MI when I was at your place.”

  He’d been paged while Travis had been expounding on his vintage wine collection and instructing them on the finer points of winemaking. Travis definitely did not consider any wine that cost less than three hundred dollars a bottle worth drinking. Justin had nearly mentioned that Marissa’s favorite brand cost only a fraction of that, but stopped himself. Embarrassing her in front of someone she wanted to impress would be counterproductive.

  “By the way,” he asked, “did Toby behave after I left?”

  “More or less. He sat on my lap and pouted until Travis left around midnight. He doesn’t like it when people don’t pay attention to him.”

  “He’s a ham,” Justin agreed. “Toby likes people and can’t understand why someone wouldn’t like him, too. No wonder the poor dog grumbled at Travis.”

  “Toby’ll have to get used to it. I can’t blame Travis for not wanting dog hair on his suit, though.”

  “A fate worse than death,” he agreed facetiously.

  She glared, which only meant that his sarcasm hadn’t gone over her head. “You were talking about why you were gone all night?”

  “Oh, yeah. After the MI, I had a fellow who’s blood pressure was high enough for a stroke, so we watched him. Then I had a guy come in with a nosebleed that wouldn’t quit, so I had to pack his nose, and—”

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