Under the mistletoe with.., p.8

Under The Mistletoe With John Doe, page 8


Under The Mistletoe With John Doe

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  As he turned toward the entrance to the medical building, she drove off. But he couldn’t help looking over his shoulder to steal one last peek at her, missing what little connection they had. Then he entered the building and sought the directory.

  Neurology Associates was in number 206, so he took the elevator to the second floor and found the office. When he reached the front desk, the receptionist, a dishwater blonde in her mid-forties looked up and cast him a sympathetic frown. “I’m really sorry, but Dr. Kelso was just called to the hospital on an emergency. I’ve been contacting his patients with appointments this morning, but I’m afraid I wasn’t able to catch you in time.”

  He’d hoped Dr. Kelso would tell him that he could return to all of his normal activities-whatever they were. But apparently, that wasn’t going to happen today.

  Masking his disappointment, he rescheduled the appointment. Then, with nothing else to do, he headed for the retirement home down the street.

  The wintry air was crisp, and he shoved his hands into the pockets of the corduroy jacket Doc had loaned him. On the left side, he found a quarter that his benefactor had left behind.

  As he fingered the coin, a niggle of uneasiness settled over him. He wasn’t comfortable taking handouts. He wasn’t sure how he knew that. But he did.

  And while he was glad to have a job and a place to live, he couldn’t help feeling as though he needed to pay his own way.

  When he turned into the complex, he headed toward a pair of glass doors that opened up to the lobby. The spacious room, with its hardwood floor, cream-colored walls and decor in shades of green and brown, wasn’t much different than that of a hotel.

  The overstuffed furniture in coordinating fabric provided a homey appearance. And a large brick fireplace, with colorful needlepoint stockings hanging from the mantel and gas flames licking over fake logs, gave the place a cozy, Christmassy feel.

  In the far corner, he spotted a large Scotch pine, fully decorated and loaded with sparkling white lights. He wished he could conjure some of the holiday spirit himself, but he came up blank.

  Had he been ready for Christmas when he first came to town? When his past hadn’t been a mystery to him?

  He supposed it didn’t matter.

  As he continued into the lobby, he noticed a bulletin board next to an unmanned concierge desk. The board was adorned with a snowflake trim and bore several flyers. Curious, he made his way toward it and read the notices that announced a bingo game on Tuesday night, a day trip to the museum in Houston next week and karaoke sing-alongs in the recreation room every Saturday night.

  Betsy had been right. This wasn’t a hospital, and her parents probably did enjoy living here.

  As he started for an empty easy chair near a big-screen television, he figured he was in for a long wait, which was okay with him.

  But he’d only taken two steps when the elevator doors opened and Betsy stepped out with a silver-haired couple.

  When recognition dawned on her face, he tossed her a grin and shrugged. “My appointment was canceled.”

  “That’s too bad.” As she approached him, her parents, a couple in their seventies, came with her.

  “It is a little annoying to think I made the trip for nothing, but those things happen. I rescheduled my appointment for later in the week.” He nodded toward the television. “I’ll just wait here for you to get back.”

  “Betsy, is this a friend of yours?” her father asked, eyeing John carefully.

  When Betsy said that he was, the older man with thinning hair broke into a grin and reached out his arm in the customary greeting. “It’s nice to meet you, son. I’m Pete Nielson. And this is my wife, Barbara.”

  John shook the older man’s hand, but he didn’t offer a name for himself. What was he supposed to say, “I’m John Doe”?

  Fortunately, Betsy stepped in and saved him by offering a discreet, yet truthful, explanation. “This is John. He’s staying on Dr. Graham’s ranch.”

  “It’s nice to meet you,” Pete said. “And although it’s too bad your appointment was canceled, you’re just in time for lunch.”

  “Oh, no,” John said. “I don’t want to horn in.”

  “Don’t be silly.” Barbara placed a hand on his arm. “Any friend of Betsy’s is a friend of ours. We’d love to have you join us. Besides, it’ll be nice for Pete to have another man to talk to.”

  John would have jumped at the chance to join Betsy and her parents for lunch, but he didn’t have a wallet, a credit card or a penny to his name. And he wasn’t used to free rides…

  Again, he was caught up in a fact that had no basis for that conclusion, no reason to give that passing thought any credibility.

  “You don’t need to include me,” he said. “I can keep myself busy for an hour or two.”

  “That’s up to you,” Betsy said. “But you’re welcome to join us. And my mom’s right. Daddy is always outnumbered whenever the three of us get together.”

  “Well,” he said, “the problem is that I don’t have my wallet with me.”

  “Don’t worry about that,” Pete said. “I’ve got lunch covered today. You can pick up the tab next time.”

  “Okay. If that’s the case, then you’ve got yourself a deal.”

  “Glad to hear it,” Pete said, a grin spreading across his face as he patted John on the back.

  Barbara was smiling, too-as if his company would be a real treat.

  John shot a glance at Betsy, to see if she was as happy as her parents seemed to be. But she wore the same unreadable expression she’d had on earlier.

  As Betsy slid into a corner booth at Caroline’s Diner with her parents and John, she was both pleased and discomfited about his joining them for lunch. She could have dealt with one or the other, but the conflicting emotions made her uneasy.

  Now here they were, seated at the table with their sodas before them and waiting for the waitress to serve their hamburgers.

  Her father-a retired banker-leaned toward John and said, “Tell us a little about yourself, young man. What kind of work do you do? And how did you come to meet Dr. Graham?”

  Betsy glanced at John, who’d yet to respond, and watched the dilemma weighing in his eyes. But before she could field the question for him, he answered her father truthfully. “Actually, sir, I had an accident a while back and suffered a head injury. I’m afraid I’ve got temporary amnesia, so there’s not much I can tell you.”

  “I’m so sorry to hear that,” Betsy’s mother said. “That must be so difficult for you.”

  “It’s tough, but I’m dealing with it.”

  For a moment, pain shadowed John’s eyes. As Betsy’s heart went out to him, he rallied and changed the subject. “I was pleasantly surprised when I entered the Shady Glen lobby. It’s got a warm and cozy feel about it.”

  “We like it,” her dad said. “And there’s a convalescent facility right next door, if one of us should ever need it. But the residents on our side of the complex are considered active seniors, and we have a lot of opportunities to get out on our own and with the others. I even have a couple of golfing buddies who play with me on Saturdays at a little executive course in Wexler. And Barb belongs to a book club and a quilting group that keeps her busy.”

  Her mother added, “Betsy wanted us to live with her, but we didn’t want to be a burden.”

  Actually, they’d been afraid they would get in the way if she ever started dating again. But that wasn’t going to happen. She’d given up the white-picket-fence dream for herself.

  Still, each time she looked at John, she found herself wondering if she’d been wrong. If she could have both a career and a family and balance them as well as Molly Mayfield seemed to have done so far.

  But considering something like that, especially with John Doe, was crazy. Look how wrong she’d been about Doug and she’d known him for years.

  Sure, they’d been happy at first-or at least she’d thought they’d been. But she’d been so busy with her st
udies and then with her internship at Grace Memorial that she hadn’t realized that while she was working the night shift, her husband hadn’t been home in bed.

  At least not alone.

  And the fact that there had been numerous affairs during their three years together had been worsened by his criminal activity. The conviction for insider trading had left her feeling stupid and naive, confirming to her that the man she’d once thought she loved hadn’t been the man she’d thought he was.

  Of course, John wasn’t anything like Doug.

  Oh, yeah? a small voice asked. How in the world could you possibly know that?

  She had nothing to go on but feelings and gut instinct. And when it came to romance and judging a man’s character, her emotional gauge had proven to be flawed in the past. Could she ever trust it again?

  “Here we go,” the waitress said, as she brought a tray with their plates.

  “Would you look at those burgers and fries,” her father said. “What’d I tell you? Caroline sure knows how to make them right.”

  As much as Betsy wanted to focus on her meal and to take part in the chatter around her, she couldn’t seem to keep her eyes off John. Her curiosity and interest in him were growing by leaps and bounds, especially after that kiss, and she had no idea what to do about it.

  So as a result, she remained fairly quiet over lunch, while her father and John seemed to hit it off.

  John seemed to know quite a bit about sports and economics, and she wondered if being around her dad might trigger his memory.

  Or had it done so already?

  When everyone had finished eating and the waitress had picked up the plates, her father asked for the check.

  “Don’t forget,” John said, “I owe you a meal, Pete.”

  Her dad slid out from his inside seat at the booth, and before heading for the cashier, he tapped his index finger on his temple. “I won’t forget. And I’ll look forward to next time.”

  Betsy told herself that John’s insistence to pay his own way was a good thing, a sign that he was a decent person at heart. And she reminded herself that some of her assumptions about him were based upon observations she’d made and not just on emotion.

  After her father paid the bill, they climbed into her car and headed back to the retirement home. Before she knew it, she was dropping her folks off in front of the lobby doors.

  John climbed out to help her mom with the walker-another sign of his character.

  “It was nice meeting you,” her mother told John. “I hope we get a chance to see you again one day soon.”

  He smiled. “I’d like that, Barbara.”

  When they’d all said their goodbyes, she drove away, feeling a bit relieved. John and her parents had hit if off better than she’d expected.

  She had to admit, she felt a lot more comfortable with John on the drive back to the ranch than she had coming to town. She wasn’t sure why that was, though. Nothing had really changed.

  “Your parents are great,” he said.

  “I think so, too.”

  “They’re really proud of you.”

  “Yes, they are.” In fact, just the other day, her mom had told her that they’d been blessed the day they’d adopted her. And Betsy felt the same way.

  She had no idea what her life would have been like if she hadn’t grown up in the Nielsons’ home.

  Yet whenever that question came to mind, she couldn’t help wondering about her birth mother, the woman who wanted to meet her. The woman who’d at least taken time to look at her red-haired newborn before handing her over to social workers.

  She tried to imagine the possible scenarios that might have caused the woman to put her newborn daughter up for adoption. A teenage pregnancy? Illegitimacy?

  How would the woman feel when she learned that the baby she’d given away had grown up to be happy, successful and well-adjusted?

  Would she have been pleased by the decision she’d made? Relieved?

  Would she feel disappointed that she hadn’t played even the slightest role in Betsy’s life?

  “It’s nice that your parents opted to live in a retirement community rather than become a burden,” John said, interrupting her tumble of thoughts.

  “They’d never be a burden to me, and I think they know that. In reality, I think they were afraid that if they moved in with me, they’d scare off any potential suitors.” She chuckled at their reasoning and turned to John. “They’re still concerned that I’ll become an old maid.”

  As their gazes locked, something surged between them, causing her heart to race.

  John’s voice dropped a decibel, as he said in a husky tone, “There’s no chance of that, Betsy.”

  Her heart zinged as she considered the subtext, but she forced herself to turn away and watch the road before they ended up in a ditch or wrapped around a telephone pole.

  Yet in spite of her better judgment, she found herself fishing for the words he’d implied but hadn’t actually said. “Why do you say that?”

  “Because some lucky guy is going to talk you into marrying him one of these days.”

  The thought of marriage to a man who truly appreciated her set her heart off-kilter. She tried to remind herself that she was happy being single. At least, she had been until John entered her life.

  But ever since they’d kissed last night, she’d found herself envisioning a two-story house in town, surrounded by the proverbial white picket fence. She could imagine a swing hanging from the branch of a tree in the front yard and a set of rocking chairs on the front porch.

  She’d always wanted a family-a husband and kids. But her life was cut out for something bigger. Something better.

  Or had she just convinced herself of that?

  Chapter Seven

  On the way back to Doc’s ranch, John watched the road ahead, noting the shops and establishments that stretched along Brighton Valley’s main drag. Earlier, when he’d told Doc what he thought was wrong with the pickup, the elderly man had given him some cash and asked him to purchase the parts he would need to fix it while he was in town.

  Across the street from Sam Houston Elementary School, John spotted a blue-and-yellow sign that advertised auto parts.

  “Would you mind stopping at B.J.’s Auto Works for a minute?” he asked Betsy. “I’d like to pick up a starter for Doc’s pickup. I think that was the problem I was having with the engine this morning.”

  “I’d be glad to.” She pulled into the driveway and parked in front of the store. “Do you need me to come in and pay for it?”

  “Not unless it costs more than the money Doc gave me.”

  As he was getting out of the car, she said, “I think it’s great that you think you can fix Doc’s truck. Maybe you’re a mechanic.”

  “I doubt it. I have a feeling that I can handle something simple, but that’s about it.”

  She paused for a beat, then said, “Your hands were neat and clean when you came into the E.R., so maybe it’s safe to assume that you don’t fix engines on a regular basis.”

  “Then maybe I have a white-collar job. Who knows?” He tried to laugh it off, but the fact that he didn’t have a clue how he’d been supporting himself before landing in Brighton Valley made any humor in the situation fall flat.

  He shut the passenger door, then went into the store. Several minutes later, he returned with a large box filled with his purchases.

  “I thought you only needed a starter,” she said. “What else did you get?”

  “I picked up some oil and filters, too. I’m going to do what I can to get that truck running smoothly for Doc, but if this doesn’t do the trick, then he’ll have to call in an expert.”

  John placed the box in the backseat of her car, and once he was buckled in, Betsy took off.

  When they arrived at the ranch, she parked near the guesthouse. “Good luck getting Doc’s truck started.”

  “Thanks. What are you going to do this afternoon?”

  “I’ve got some
bills to pay, my checkbook to balance and some bookwork to do.”

  He hoped he would see her later. It wasn’t often that she got a day off. And even though his plans would be taken up with repairing Doc’s truck, he wondered if she’d remembered his invitation to go riding, a question he’d asked before that mind-blowing kiss.

  Maybe it would pan out someday. But for now, they each went their own way.

  The first thing John did was to find Doc and tell him he was home. Then he set about replacing the old starter with the new one. While he was at it, he changed the oil and the filters, too. And when he was finished, he opened the back door, entered the service porch and washed the grease and grit from his hands.

  Doc, who’d just entered the kitchen, asked, “Have you got the truck running again?”

  “Yes, and it started right up.”

  As John reached for a paper towel to dry his hands, he studied the older man, who seemed out of character dressed in a clean white shirt and a neatly pressed pair of slacks.

  “What’re you up to?” he asked the man who’d recently showered and shaved.

  Doc opened the pantry and pulled out a bottle of red wine that had been lying on its side. “I was invited to have dinner with Edna Clayton, an old friend of mine. And I didn’t want to go empty-handed.”

  “You’ve been holding out on me, Doc.” John crossed his arms, cocked his head to the side and grinned. “You’ve got a lady friend.”

  The old man rolled his eyes. “No, I don’t.”

  “I think it’s great if you do,” John said.

  “Well, to be honest, Edna and I tiptoed around a romance at one time. I suppose it would have been nice to find love in the golden years, but we never had that kind of spark between us.”

  “That’s too bad.”

  “Isn’t it?” Doc chuckled. “But Edna’s a real hoot and a good friend. She’s also one heck of a cook. And she’s having pork roast and mashed potatoes tonight.”

  “Have fun.”

  “I will. But before she called, I put a couple of chicken breasts in the oven to bake. Can you take them out for me? They’ll be ready in about thirty minutes or so.”

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