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His long awaited bride, p.7

His Long-Awaited Bride, page 7

 

His Long-Awaited Bride
 


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“I do, but I want to look at your floor plan with a fresh eye.”

  “Okay.”

  He sounded far too cooperative. Suspicious, she asked, “Are you feeling well?”

  “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”

  “I know you don’t like change.”

  “It isn’t that I don’t like change,” he corrected. “I just don’t need it for its own sake. Besides, we’re only talking a coat of paint. As long as you don’t ask me to move the dishes in my kitchen cabinets around, I’m fine.”

  “Dishes?” She covered her mouth in mock horror. “You actually have dishes?”

  “Yes, Ms. Smarty-Pants, I do.”

  “Then I’ll see you at seven.”

  “If I’m not there—” he began.

  “I know where you keep your spare key.”

  As he strode away, she watched him leave, wondering if aliens had somehow taken over Justin’s body. She shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth—she’d been begging him for the last two years to make his house a place he’d want to go home to, and he’d fought her tooth and toenail. Now, out of the blue, he was ready for a makeover.

  Granted, painted walls didn’t constitute a makeover in the true sense of the word, but they were a change. And for a man who was happy with a bland, off-white appearance throughout his house, agreeing to different colors was a significant move. Although she’d badgered him often, he’d withstood her subtle hints as well as her not-so-subtle ones. Now, almost overnight, his position had shifted and without any prompting on her part. Curiosity made her wonder at his sudden about-face, but if she pressed him for his reasons, he might stop the project before it got started. Some things were better left unanalyzed.

  Satisfied with her decision, she returned to Lonnie Newland’s cubicle.

  “I thought you were going to sleep in this morning at home,” she chided, as soon as she saw Abby seated in the chair beside the bed. “Especially after you stayed so late last night after the birthing class ended.”

  “I was,” she admitted as she straightened in the chair. “But Junior…” she rubbed her tummy in a circular motion “…woke up early. I thought I may as well start my day, too.”

  “Are you getting enough rest?” Marissa demanded gently, seeing the dark smudges under her eyes.

  “My day consists of sitting at home and sitting here, then back home again. Add a few walks around the hospital and my house, and then I’m sitting again. I’d say that’s plenty of rest.”

  Perhaps she was getting enough physical rest, but emotionally she wasn’t. What the poor woman needed was for her husband to respond, but each passing day made hope dwindle.

  “Thanks for going with me last night,” Abby said again. “I really appreciate it.”

  “Anytime. I’m always available—” Before she could finish her sentence, the distinctive sound of a plugged airway caught her attention. “Why don’t you step outside for a few minutes while I take care of this?” she told Abby.

  Weariness crossed the young woman’s face as she nodded, then left the room.

  Marissa suctioned Lonnie’s airway and, once finished, shifted his arm and leg positions to prevent bed sores. It never failed to amaze her how quickly a healthy body deteriorated as the weeks marched on. As active as he’d been, his once muscular extremities were now pale and skinny. “Squeeze my hand, Lonnie,” she said, watching for the slightest movement that might indicate he was still inside his weak frame.

  Nothing.

  She patted his hand and laid it back down. If they were able to kick his pneumonia, Abby would have to face the next step of placing him back in a facility that specialized in the caring for and rehabilitation of brain-injured patients.

  A practiced glance at his body showed no outward change from her last visit, so she concentrated on the monitors that recorded those details invisible to the naked eye. Dissatisfied by his oxygen saturation level, she made a mental note to call Respiratory Therapy. And as she was already in the room, she ran through her usual physical exam to look for any signs of complications. Her trained fingers felt pulses while she listened to his heart, lungs and abdomen for sounds that might translate into one of any number of diagnoses. Pleased by her lack of abnormal findings, she checked the nasogastric tube that delivered the vitamins and minerals to keep his body alive, and ran through the rest of her tasks.

  She charted her observations, then met Abby in the hallway.

  “All done?” Abby asked brightly, or as bright as a seven-month pregnant lady under severe stress could be.

  “For now. Can we talk a minute before you go in?”

  Marissa hated taking people to the family room because it was the place where, more often than not, a staff member delivered bad news. While her conversation wasn’t going to cover topics that hadn’t already been brought to Abby’s attention, it was the only private place available on their unit.

  “I know Dr. St. James has already discussed this with you,” Marissa began as soon as she closed the door, “but we wondered if you’d changed your mind about a ‘do not resuscitate’ order.”

  “No.” Abby shook her head and paced a few steps. “I can’t. Not yet. Signing it would be like I’m giving up.” She rubbed her belly. “And I can’t. Not yet.” Her eyes held a plea. “Not as long as there’s a chance he could wake up and see our baby.”

  Marissa now privately thought it was highly unlikely, but she could only echo what Justin had told her before. “He’s not responding to our treatment for his pneumonia as well as we’d like. His last EEG doesn’t show much activity.”

  Abby squared her shoulders. “I can’t give up hope. Maybe tomorrow, but not today. You understand, don’t you?”

  God help her, but she did. Marissa couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to see one’s soul mate become so helpless and dependent on others for even the simple act of breathing. But Abby was due to deliver their first child in a matter of weeks. The stress of changing the status quo, making a decision that she wasn’t emotionally ready to make, would only be added stress at a time when Abby didn’t need it.

  “I understand.” She hugged Abby. “Go on in and take a load off your feet. RT will stop by to collect a blood gas shortly.”

  “Thanks.”

  As Marissa retraced her steps toward the patient cubicles to help Kristi with the other potential West Nile victim, she wished that she could stroll down to Central Supply and requisition a magic lamp with a genie. Even if she were only granted one wish, she couldn’t imagine spending it on anyone more deserving than Lonnie Newland.

  “What do you think?”

  Marissa paused in her final survey of Justin’s living room as she heard his step in the entryway and the clang of car keys landing on the kitchen table. Unwilling to let him see how affected she was by the things she’d seen, she swallowed the strange lump in her throat and managed a smile as she turned to face him.

  “Well,” she began, searching for a diplomatic answer, “it’s what I’d expected.” She’d arrived to an empty house some thirty minutes earlier and had sauntered through each room, trying to understand how such a vital and virile man like Justin could have lost so much interest in his personal surroundings since his divorce. At first, she’d wanted to weep at how Justin had chosen to live with only the barest necessities, as if enduring penance for the loss of his marriage and the wife of his dreams, but by the time she’d completed her circuit, she’d started to focus on the possibilities instead, much like an artist stared at a blank canvas and saw the final result.

  “That bad, eh?”

  His crestfallen expression made her all the more determined to be diplomatic. This was, after all, the place where he’d chosen to live, and even if it was a far cry from anything she’d consider welcoming, pointing out every flaw would only put him on the defensive. It had taken him a long time to agree to fresh paint, and she certainly didn’t want him to back out before she’d accomplished that much. If she played her cards right, she might also convince him t
o add new curtains and a few more pieces of furniture. And if she was really lucky, she just might talk him into new carpeting as well. But any journey began with a single step, and she intended to make sure this one started without a hitch.

  “Well,” she began again, “your place is certainly sterile-looking.” The living room boasted a leopard-spotted sofa, a black leather recliner and a battered rectangular coffee table that held a haphazard assortment of medical journals and electric train magazines. A lone mountain lake landscape hung on a wall.

  “Sterile?” He looked as puzzled as he sounded.

  “As in plain, austere,” she explained.

  Understanding filled his eyes. “I prefer the “no-clutter” look.”

  “I can tell.” She wondered if he truly preferred no-frills living or if he’d simply gotten used to doing without. His divorce had left him with little more than the clothes on his back and an empty bank account, but he’d claimed those terms had been preferable to paying his ex-wife alimony for the next ten years. Whatever his reason, she intended to convince him that his house didn’t have to look as bare as a monk’s cell.

  “Fresh paint will definitely be an improvement,” she said, turning slowly as she imagined how the room could look, “but you really should consider a few other changes, too.”

  His eyes narrowed. “Knocking down walls is out of the question.”

  “I’m giving decorating tips, not remodeling advice,” she countered. “I’m simply saying that sometimes one project leads to another. For example, when I replaced the shower in my bathroom, the new tile made my sink look old-fashioned. After I tore that out, then the flooring didn’t look right. The same thing might happen here.”

  “We’re only painting the walls,” he reminded her.

  “True,” she agreed, “but speaking from experience, you should prepare yourself to replace those window shades and curtains.”

  “Is there anything else I should prepare myself to replace?” he asked wryly, as if he suspected that she wouldn’t be satisfied with only a new coat of paint.

  “Maybe one or two other things, but I’ll let you know when they come up,” she answered airily.

  “Whatever ideas are percolating in your head, don’t get carried away,” he warned. “I don’t want the house to look like it belongs in a magazine. I only want it to be comfortable, a place where I can throw my socks on the floor and leave my newspapers without bringing down the interior design police.”

  “Somehow, I can’t see you living with clothes tossed haphazardly in every room.” A mental picture of his underwear trailing across the house sent an anticipatory shiver down her spine. Briefs or boxers? she wondered, but after a quick perusal of his snug jeans, she decided upon briefs. He’d look as good as he had when she’d seen him wearing swim trunks some ten years ago, probably better.

  He shrugged. “I’m turning over a new leaf.”

  “Really?”

  “Really.”

  “Fat chance,” she disagreed. “Some things are just too ingrained. In you, neatness is one of them.”

  “I can be a slob as easily as the next guy.” He grinned. “You’ll see.”

  “Let’s not go that far,” she said, “but I get your point. You want a place that has a homey, lived-in feel.”

  He nodded for emphasis. “Exactly. It shouldn’t be too hard to create, should it?”

  “Not if you’re giving me carte blanche.”

  He chuckled. “Not a chance, Mari.”

  “I’d work within a budget,” she volunteered.

  “My budget only allows for paint.”

  She snapped her fingers. She hadn’t expected him to allow her to perform a complete makeover, but it hadn’t hurt to try. “Shucks.”

  “But I’m willing to thoughtfully consider any other suggestions.”

  All hope wasn’t lost. “Well.” She sighed dramatically. “That’s better than nothing.”

  “I am the person living here.”

  “Then I don’t suppose you’ll approve my idea of white lilies stenciled on lilac walls.”

  He grimaced. “Smart woman. Try again.”

  “Okay. How about this?” She grew serious. “You need warmth in here, so I’m thinking beige, not creamy or off-white but a shade darker that will contrast nicely with the oak woodwork.”

  His focus seemed to soften as he imagined the mental picture she’d painted. “Not bad.”

  “For the kitchen, let’s go for bright and sunny.” At his frown, she modified her plan before he could completely veto it.

  “I’m not talking taxicab-yellow bright and sunny. Think creamy yellow, with a cheery wallpaper border to bring in more color.”

  “No flowers,” he ordered.

  “None?”

  “None,” he said firmly.

  “What’s wrong with—?”

  “Chandra papered every room of our apartment with floral prints. I felt like I was living in a sixteenth-century boudoir.”

  “Okay, then. No flowers,” she dutifully echoed, happy that he’d allowed yellow instead of his favorite, albeit boring, off-white. “Now, in your bedroom—”

  “What’s wrong with my bedroom?”

  “I’ll show you.” She marched inside the room and threw her arms wide. “Look at this.”

  He surveyed the room. “Yeah, so?”

  “You have a clip-on light clamped to your bedframe instead of a table lamp.”

  “I like to read in bed,” he defended himself. “Besides, I don’t have a table for a lamp.”

  “That’s my point. You also have a black towel hanging at the window. A terrycloth towel, Justin.”

  “I know it’s not fancy, but the curtain fell apart and a pillowcase didn’t block out enough sun.”

  “A pillowcase?” She rolled her eyes. “What’s wrong with buying a new curtain?”

  He shrugged. “No time to shop. Anyway, the towel works fine. Better than the curtain that had been there, in fact.”

  She pinched the bridge of her nose and forced herself to speak normally, instead of yelping in horror. “That may be, but if we’re going to spruce up this room, the towel has to go.”

  “Okay. We’ll paint and buy a curtain.”

  “And maybe a picture or two for the walls.”

  He winced. “I come in here to sleep, not study artwork.”

  “Pictures break up the monotony. Prison cells have more character than your room, Justin.”

  He grinned. “Been in a lot of them, have you?”

  “You know what I mean,” she said tartly. “The only things that reflect you in this whole house are the family photos you’ve hung in the hallway and the pharmaceutical coffee mugs in the kitchen. I can’t believe your mother and sisters didn’t give your house a face-lift when they stayed with you after the accident.”

  It seemed somewhat of an understatement to refer to the plane crash as simply an accident, but after all these months, the event still packed enough punch to give Marissa nightmares. She’d never forget the heart-wrenching fear or the knee-weakening relief she’d experienced during those hours of his rescue.

  “Not for lack of trying,” he said wryly.

  “How did you stop them? I’ve met your mother and she can be rather forceful.”

  “They were given a choice. If they brought one unauthorized thing into the house, then they had to leave.” His grin was sheepish. “I was a bear afterward, so they didn’t cross me at the time.”

  “And now?”

  “I visit them at their places so their sensibilities aren’t outraged when they come here.”

  “How thoughtful.”

  “Ain’t I, though?” He snickered.

  “As I was saying about the bedroom—”

  “You won’t stop hounding me until I slap something besides paint on the walls, will you?”

  “One painting, Justin. That’s all I’m asking.”

  He frowned, then his shoulders slumped with resignation. “Okay, but only one.”
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  Her smile felt as if it stretched from ear to ear. It probably did because she’d made a promising start to his home makeover. Little did he know that she had an entire scenic grouping in mind, but that revelation would wait for another time. “Just remember,” she warned, “a bedroom should be a relaxing place that draws you at the end of a long, hard day.”

  “Relaxing, eh?” He stroked his chin as he wiggled his eyebrows. “I can think of other things that I’d rather do in here than relax.”

  Unbidden, her gaze fell upon the rumpled bedsheets and a pillow that still held the faint indentation of his head. Considering how tangled the bedding was, if she didn’t know him as well as she did, she might have wondered if he’d entertained an overnight guest.

  An anticipatory shiver shot down her spine, leaving a surge of heat in its wake. With any other man, she might have thought he was flirting with her, but with Justin? No, he was simply being his usual teasing self, just as he’d been in college. How silly to read more into his comments or to get all hot and bothered by her imagination.

  Determined to deny her reaction—which she shouldn’t be having at all if Travis was the man she hoped to marry someday—she went on the offensive.

  “Then you’re definitely going to strike out if you bring a girl in here,” she countered. “The ambience does not set the tone for a romantic interlude.”

  His jaw squared. “I wouldn’t bring a woman in here if she was going to pay more attention to my furniture than to me,” he grumbled.

  “Of course not, but this is the most private room of the house and it’s where she’ll see the real Justin St. James. Not just the side of him that he wants her to see, but every little thing. No games, no pretenses, no secrets.”

  “I’ll say,” he said dryly as his mouth twitched with undisguised humor.

  “Oh, be serious,” she chided. “This room, of all rooms, has to reflect you—your personality, your innermost self.”

  “If you want reflections, I’ll install a mirror over the bed.”

  The image he’d created, with her fantasies writing her into the scene as well, nearly took her breath away. Certain he was only trying to get her proverbial goat because friends didn’t flirt with each other, she scolded him with the proper amount of affront in her voice. “Would you stop joking for a minute and listen?”

 
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