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His long awaited bride, p.9

His Long-Awaited Bride, page 9

 

His Long-Awaited Bride
 


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  And she was enjoying it far, far too much.

  But, then, why shouldn’t she? She was twenty-nine, almost thirty, and she’d never experienced a kiss with such power before. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t kissed anyone—she’d kissed enough frogs in her lifetime to know the routine—but none of those guys had made her toes curl like Justin did.

  Not even Travis.

  What was she doing? she thought wildly. She shouldn’t feel this way—no, she couldn’t feel this way because it wasn’t right with Travis waiting in the wings.

  Yet it did feel right. An urge to sink against him rolled over her, as well as a desperate desire for more.

  Before she could wrap her mind around the concept of what she wanted “more” to be, Toby’s crisp bark broke the spell.

  She pulled away, hoping Justin hadn’t noticed just how close she’d been to losing control, chagrined that it had even happened and even more grateful to Toby for standing guard over her conscience.

  Clenching her fist to stifle the residual feel of his heartbeat against her palm, she avoided Justin’s gaze to glance at Toby. The Cairn terrier stood before her, his black eyes piercing and his head cocked in a way that seemed to reflect both puzzlement and curiosity.

  I’m just as confused as you are, Tobe, she thought. However, from the way Toby jumped into her lap, his confusion clearly hadn’t lasted as long as hers.

  Justin chuckled as he laid his long, capable fingers on Toby’s head and began scratching behind his ears. “You just wanted a piece of this action, too, didn’t you, buddy?”

  A sound came from Toby’s throat, as if he agreed.

  A piece of the action. As far as she was concerned, there had been no action. This had only been a simple kiss from a man she’d known for years, a simple kiss of thanks for working the kinks out of his muscles. That’s all it had been. That’s all she would let herself imagine because she’d moved on with her life long ago.

  Defusing the situation—before he asked questions she couldn’t answer—became her top priority. Later, she’d think about the implications but for now she needed a witty, lighthearted remark to smother the sparks in the air. To say anything serious would only give the incident more importance than it deserved. Better to treat “The Kiss” as inconsequential, because it was. After all, the man had far more experience in that department than she did—one more area in which he excelled.

  “Wow, Justin,” she remarked, striving for a carefree tone as she avoided his gaze, “with kisses like that, I’m surprised you’ve only been married once. Remind me to toss your name in the hat for the hospital’s next bachelor date auction. Once word gets out, you’ll bring in a fortune for the fundraiser.”

  “Don’t even think it,” he threatened.

  “In any case,” she continued primly, as if he hadn’t spoken, “you’re welcome.” She grabbed Toby off the sofa and jumped to her feet. “Things are under control here, so I’ll run home and scrub Toby down or he’ll be spotted until his next haircut.”

  He rose, too. “I’m coming, too. You’ll need help with Lucy’s chores and you volunteered me to help out in her garden, remember?”

  “You don’t have to bother,” she said, striding to the door with a wiggling Toby under her arm. Eager to leave, she didn’t want to waste time chasing her dog through Justin’s house. Toby was far too comfortable here, probably because he had so many more things to explore, not to mention the joy of being a pet vacuum for all the stray crumbs that slipped past Justin’s house-cleaning efforts. “Weeding won’t be good for your hand. We wouldn’t want to undo all the work I just did.”

  “I may not pull weeds, but I take my job as a gofer seriously. Thanks again for all your hard work, Marissa,” he said as they reached the front entrance.

  She had a sudden urge to release Toby and hug Justin instead, but succumbing to the notion after his ground-moving kiss would be sheer folly. Justin wasn’t interested in long-term relationships with anyone, much less her, while she, on the other hand, had a bright future with Travis. She didn’t have any business cultivating any more dreams or fantasies about the man in front of her.

  Unfortunately, those facts and admonitions barely softened her yearning. Stunned by her completely illogical and impossible thoughts, she gripped Toby like a protective talisman until he whimpered in protest.

  “Sorry, Tobe,” she whispered, before she spoke to Justin in her normal voice. “You’re welcome. Again.”

  As she dashed to her car, she told herself not to read more into The Kiss than she should. The man had been completely unaffected by the incident—he hadn’t sounded hoarse or surprised or shown any reaction whatsoever. But why should he? He’d only been thanking her as a friend who’d performed a favor, and she would do well to remember that.

  What in the world had just gone on? Justin asked himself as soon as Marissa had dashed to her car. His heart was still pumping as if he’d set a new record for the mile and the feel of her soft skin was indelibly imprinted on his.

  After she’d finished working out the kinks in his hand and wrist and he’d gotten over his pity party, his natural impulses had taken over. Where those had come from he didn’t know, but he couldn’t have asked for a louder wake-up call.

  He’d only intended to give her a thank-you peck, but it had led to him pulling her into his arms in a most natural embrace, which she hadn’t resisted. What was even more startling was how once he’d tasted her mouth and breathed in her scent, he’d wanted to carry her off to the bedroom that her decorator sensibilities disdained and turn her fantasy into reality.

  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this sexually frustrated, and it hit him hard. Obviously, his subconscious had seen Marissa as a desirable woman long before his conscious mind had. After a kiss that had only whetted his appetite for more, seeing her in the same platonic light as before would be like trying to stop the wind. Completely impossible.

  Situations that he couldn’t explain up to now started to make sense—the reason Pendleton’s interest in Marissa had unsettled him, why Lucy’s comment about them being a couple hadn’t sent him recoiling in horror, why it had hurt to know that Marissa hadn’t considered him to be her type. Why he was jealous of Travis, and why he was determined to push the other man out of her life.

  They were all signs of his feelings for her that went beyond friendship, but he hadn’t recognized them.

  Or maybe he simply hadn’t wanted to.

  For a man who’d believed that love wasn’t for him, it was a shock to realize he still felt those emotions after all this time. Or was he suffering from a simple case of lust? A repeat of the early days in his relationship with Chandra, when he’d been thinking with his hormones instead of his heart?

  No, this situation wasn’t quite the same. He hadn’t had the history with Chandra that he did with Marissa. He hadn’t known her as well as he knew himself, which was an apt description of his relationship with Mari. The question was, was he ready to love again?

  Maybe, he thought, if he was certain he wasn’t responding to the heat of the moment.

  And if he was, what was he going to do next? More importantly, what did he want to do next?

  He was still too poleaxed to know, but from the way Marissa hadn’t been able to rush out of his house fast enough, she had clearly been as shocked by the magic of their kiss as he had. She had responded just as eagerly and in the end had appeared just as confused.

  Lucy had mentioned something about building on the foundation they’d already laid. Could they build a relationship stronger than friendship? A relationship that would last, a relationship that he might be willing to label as love at some point in the future?

  He had no choice but to try. If he failed, so be it, but he’d fail for sure if he gave up without a fight. Considering how he’d experienced his epiphany before Pendleton actually slid a ring on Marissa’s finger rather than afterwards, when it would have been too late, maybe Fate had a hand in what came next.
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  In the meantime, he had petunias to weed and a dog to bathe.

  On Monday morning, he met Kristi as she walked into the nurses’ station. “Where’s Marissa?” he asked as he glanced furtively down the hallway.

  Kristi sat in front of a computer terminal and began entering her notes. “She went to the lab to pick up a unit of blood. She won’t be back for at least ten minutes.”

  “Good,” he said, straddling a chair next to her. “What have you found out about Pendleton?”

  Kristi sighed. “I don’t like this sneaking around business at all. It’s going to get us both into trouble.”

  “Objection noted. Go on.”

  She cast a long-suffering glance at him before she sighed. “Here’s what I’ve learned so far. Most people say he’s a decent sort, although he has a tendency to act a little lofty. He works hard and he works late, which is quite unlike the last city manager we had. He’s a fanatic about watching the bottom line, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

  “Everyone likes him?”

  “Most are still reserving judgement. Several have mentioned that he’s good at office politics. They’ve almost all said that he won’t last long here in Hope—he’s more interested in bigger and better things than our little community. So far, no one has any huge grievances against him.”

  That wasn’t what Justin wanted to hear. “Surely he has some flaw.”

  She shrugged. “Sorry, but if he does, no one’s saying what it is. The only real complaint I heard was how he’s determined to trim the budget of each department by twenty percent. Again, that isn’t unusual—making do with less seems to be the way of life these days.”

  “Yes, but trimming the budget doesn’t win friends.”

  “Some of his cuts haven’t been popular,” she admitted, “but it’s only to be expected. No one wants to give up the equipment or services that they’re used to having. My cousin, Harold, says that he’s slashed the maintenance department’s budget to ribbons.”

  “How so?”

  “Less money for herbicides and other chemicals. Which means they’ll either spray less or switch to lesser quality products. In any case, it’s something that the public probably won’t care about. No one frets over dandelions or chickweed in a city park. And don’t forget how good it will look on his résumé if he can say that he singlehandedly balanced the city’s budget.”

  So much for Justin’s hopes of finding something to exploit.

  “No other gossip or dirt swept under the rug?”

  “Nothing that anyone’s talking about.” She paused. “What’s next?”

  He rose. “I’ll let you know. Just keep your eyes and ears to the ground.”

  “If you ruin this for her, she’ll never speak to you again,” Kristi warned. “She doesn’t want or need a big brother.”

  He patted her shoulder as he rose. “Not to worry. I have everything under control.”

  “Under control? Really.” She didn’t sound convinced.

  “Really.”

  Kristi leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “If you successfully run Travis off, she’ll have a hole in her life that you created.”

  “I know.”

  “Well? What are you going to do about it?”

  Suddenly wary, he asked, “What do you mean?”

  “Men,” she muttered as she rolled her eyes. “I mean, are you going to keep pretending you’re only friends and keep chasing off all of the eligible males until you stop having cold feet, or are you finally going to step up to the plate yourself?”

  Wary, he asked, “What do you mean? We are friends.”

  “Oh, come on,” she said with exasperation. “I know married couples who don’t see each other as often as you two do.”

  “We’re friends,” he repeated, while wondering if he sounded as uncertain as he felt. “We have a lot in common.”

  “Sure you do.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  She swiveled her chair to face him. “I’ll be honest. Your relationship with Marissa has always puzzled me. You’re friends, but you’re not.”

  He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t follow you.”

  “You’re friends, but you act like you’re more than that. I understand what you’re trying to do with Travis, but you’re being a lot more overprotective than a normal ‘friend.’”

  “I am not.”

  She crossed her arms. “Then name one other ‘friend’ you’ve tried to save from a bad relationship.”

  He opened his mouth, then closed it with a snap.

  “See? If you ask me, you aren’t sure if you want her, but you certainly don’t want anyone else to have her either. Deny it all you want, but from where I’m sitting, you have a roaring case of cold feet.”

  She was right, but old habits—and painful memories—died hard.

  Kristi leaned forward in her chair. “I don’t know anything about your ex-wife or your marriage, but Marissa is a different person. She deserves more from you than crumbs.”

  He winced as her comment struck home. He had given Marissa crumbs of himself, but that had been all he’d had to give. That, however, didn’t excuse him for denying her something better from someone else. Realizing it only made him feel even more selfish and shallow.

  Again, what was his next step? Because it was his to take.

  “Thanks for holding back and sparing my feelings,” he said facetiously.

  “Sorry.” Kristi sounded unrepentant. “Just think about what I said. If the shoe fits…”

  As if he could do anything else but think! In the meantime, he had a house to redecorate.

  Marissa had never been so glad for Monday morning to arrive. While nothing more had been said about her ideas for Justin’s bedroom—thank goodness—the memories of their kiss had surfaced with astonishing regularity.

  That would all disappear, she told herself, as soon as she spoke with Travis. Because he’d planned to return tomorrow night, she would make a point to touch base with him some time the next day. Maybe then she’d stop obsessing over something so minor as a kiss between friends and put her focus on the real relationship in her life.

  In spite of the weekend’s few unsettling moments, in retrospect she couldn’t complain too loudly. They’d accomplished a lot on Justin’s house, weeded Lucy’s garden adequately, even if they had accidentally pulled a few petunias along with the crabgrass and henbit, and all the paint had washed out of Toby’s fur.

  Unfortunately, those same few days hadn’t turned out as well for Lonnie Newland.

  “His pneumonia isn’t getting better, is it?” Abby asked with a worried frown as she rubbed her rounded abdomen.

  “He’s not responding to the antibiotics as quickly as we’d like,” Marissa said diplomatically. “Respiratory Therapy is going to collect another sputum sample for culture. Lonnie may have picked up a new bug and if so, we’ll need to either change his antibiotic or add another one.”

  Abby stroked her husband’s thin, pale arm while Marissa checked his monitors and the urine in his drainage bag. The poor man didn’t need a urinary tract infection to fight along with everything else.

  “And his seizures?” Abby asked softly.

  Marissa had learned during the shift report that Lonnie had started having seizures on a daily basis and his heart rate had become irregular. Again, his anticonvulsants and digoxin dosage had been modified at midnight and everyone hoped these changes would do the trick. Still, considering his overall condition, those signs weren’t good.

  “We’ll control them as best as we can,” she murmured.

  Abby nodded, more in acknowledgment than agreement. “He opened his eyes yesterday,” she said. “He smiled at me and squeezed my hand before he went into a seizure. God, how I’ve missed seeing his smile.”

  Her voice quavered. Marissa didn’t have the heart to explain about involuntary reflexes, but she didn’t have to.

  “I know what you’re thinking,” Abby conti
nued. “Those were just reflexes or muscle spasms, or whatever, but for those few seconds it was like he was still at home. You know what I mean?”

  Marissa nodded. “Yes, I do.”

  For a few minutes Abby didn’t speak and only the familiar bleep of the equipment punctuated the silence. “Dr. St. James asked me again about signing a ‘do not resuscitate’ order.” She paused, her throat working as she stared down at her husband with a bleak expression on her face.

  “It’s a tough decision,” Marissa agreed. “You have a lot of issues to consider.”

  Abby nodded slowly. “I know I should let him go, but I can’t. Not until after the baby’s born. After we found out I was pregnant, he brought home something different every day.” Her hazel eyes took on a far-away gleam. “First it was a baseball mitt, then it was a doll. He went back and forth between planning for a boy or a girl.” She smiled. “He said he wanted to be prepared either way.”

  “So do I look for boy things or girl things?” Marissa teased.

  “I can’t say for sure.” Abby grinned. “But something tells me it’s a boy.” In the next breath, she rubbed her tummy and winced as she bent forward. “Wow, that was kind of strong for being a Braxton-Hicks.”

  Marissa helped her to the bedside chair. “Are you sure that’s all it is? Maybe you need to call your obstetrician.”

  “I’ve had these off and on all week and Dr. Jennings didn’t seem concerned. I’m sure if I sit for a few minutes, they’ll ease.”

  A distant ding caught Marissa’s attention. Although she hated to leave Abby, she had other patients to tend. “If they don’t,” Marissa advised her, “push the call button and I’ll be back before you can say, ‘Let’s have a baby.’”

  “I will.”

  But before Marissa reached the doorway, Abby groaned and doubled over. Baby Newland clearly wanted to arrive.

  “Let me call your doctor,” she said.

 
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