Книга - Reunited With Her Army Doc

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Reunited With Her Army Doc
Dianne Drake


Can he trust her with his heart?Army doc Caleb Carsten will do anything for his gifted son—even if it means returning to his home town of Marrell and working for Leanne Sinclair, the childhood crush who once broke his heart.Leanne is thrilled to meet Caleb again. But why can’t she remember more about their past, and what she did to hurt him so badly? And if Leanne can’t show Caleb she’s changed, will he ever trust her with his heart?Sinclair Hospital Surgeons







Can he trust her with his heart?

Army doc Caleb Carsten will do anything for his gifted son—even if it means returning to his hometown of Marrell and working for Leanne Sinclair, the childhood crush who once broke his heart.

Leanne is thrilled to meet Caleb again. But why can’t she remember more about their past, and what she did to hurt him so badly? And if Leanne can’t show Caleb she’s changed, will he ever trust her with his heart?


“We were all struggling, Leanne. You…me… Only no one else took it out on people the way you did.”

“And now, all these years later, all I can do is apologize.”

For something she didn’t even remember. Maybe that was what bothered her most. This was so significant to Caleb that he’d never let it go, even after all these years. As for her—she didn’t even remember it. How could that be?

“Look, I need to be going.” She gulped down the last of her wine and stood.

As she brushed by Caleb on her way to the front door she stopped, looked up, and for some unknown reason stood on her tiptoes and brushed a gentle kiss to his lips.

Suddenly he pulled her into him roughly and kissed her back—but not in the light way she’d kissed him. More like the way a hungry man kissed a woman he wanted. Craved. Desired.

And as his mouth opened to her, and she felt his tongue delve inside, she melted into him… into a kiss like she’d never had before. For that one moment everything seemed simple. He was a man, she was a woman, and they were both finally on the same journey.


Dear Reader (#ucd848064-0aab-53c1-bd5a-5ece0c82131c),

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to meet the love of your life when you’re too young to understand what true love is about? My grandmother did that. She met my grandfather when she was seven, and married him when she’d barely turned fifteen. There was never anyone else in her life, and they stayed happily married until my grandfather died.

In Reunited with Her Army Doc Caleb and Leanne meet at just about the age when my grandparents met, and develop their first friendship. Maybe even the beginnings of their love story. But somewhere along the way life happens, they grow apart, have serious problems and go in different directions—both with hurt feelings.

They get a second chance, though, but their past problems get in the way of any kind of future they might have. Still, the love is there. Sometimes it’s difficult to find as they fight their way through so many years with so many hard feelings. The problem is, can they put aside everything they used to be and become the couple they’re meant to be? It’s not always easy, but their love, even through their struggles, always has a spark of optimism. But is that enough?

Coming up on my thirty-fourth wedding anniversary, I’d say it is—even though I wasn’t as young as Caleb and Leanne, or my grandparents, when I first met my husband. The important thing is that when true love arrives it’s worth whatever it takes to hold on to it. Just ask Caleb and Leanne.

As always, wishing you health and happiness!

Dianne


Starting with non-fiction, DIANNE DRAKE penned hundreds of articles and seven books under the name JJ Despain. In 2001 she began her romance-writing career with The Doctor Dilemma. In 2005 Dianne’s first Medical Romance, Nurse in Recovery, was published, and with more than 20 novels to her credit she has enjoyed writing ever since.


Reunited with Her Army Doc

Dianne Drake






www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk)


Books by Dianne Drake

Mills & Boon Medical Romance

Deep South Docs

A Home for the Hot-Shot Doc

A Doctor’s Confession

A Child to Heal Their Hearts

Tortured by Her Touch

Doctor, Mummy…Wife?

The Nurse and the Single Dad

Saved by Doctor Dreamy

Visit the Author Profile page

at millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) for more titles.


To Nana & PopPop—together through the eternities.


Praise for Dianne Drake (#ucd848064-0aab-53c1-bd5a-5ece0c82131c)

‘This is a classic romance...a lovely story which I heartily recommend.’

—Harlequin Junkie on

The Nurse and the Single Dad


Contents

Cover (#u56c67182-fdf6-56ed-a039-e842a64a96a5)

Back Cover Text (#u7031aaa3-ab9b-5974-a418-021cbecfeb4a)

Introduction (#u5dc1938b-74e4-5d7d-a091-e032396d1e83)

Dear Reader (#ua2cf7251-2114-5551-b16c-dfc73f35add2)

About the Author (#udaf6e35a-6670-52cc-9d2c-f94d47168d52)

Title Page (#uaf19026a-673e-5e60-99b8-2e1a595f2b97)

Booklist (#u489ed556-631d-5b44-9659-a5884f292263)

Dedication (#u6e997d28-fcf7-5fed-98c3-5884e650ef5f)

Praise (#u2e16826c-cbf9-5a9a-97db-a3d7407eea6e)

Chapter One (#u5f68899b-3584-5936-9ad8-2417ea9b0515)

Chapter Two (#uc19b78b2-634d-5af4-9021-74fa2e9f9873)

Chapter Three (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)

Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo)

Extract (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)


Chapter One (#ucd848064-0aab-53c1-bd5a-5ece0c82131c)

THE RADIO SCRATCHED out a sour little tune, one that sounded like it was on vinyl. Caleb’s hand went automatically to the scan button because he wanted to hear something else. When Matthew was with him, it was always classical—a symphony or concerto from the only world his son knew. But when Caleb was alone, like today, he dialed straight into country. He loved the soulfulness of it. The expression. The heartaches, trials and tribulations. Things he could relate to in his own life.

Marrell, Montana, the sign ahead of him said, welcoming him back to the one place he’d thought he’d never live again. Visit, yes. More than a day or two...no. Not him. Not anymore. Too many childhood memories, too many difficult times. But never say never, right? Because here he was, right back where he’d started. Only this time with his son. Just the two of them. And, he was driving a beat-up old pickup truck that had come with the property he was renting. Plenty of dents, a fair share of rust, bumpy ride, but dependable. The same could be said of him. Plenty of dents—war wounds, physical and mental, plus a fair share of rust because, face it, at thirty-six, he wasn’t getting any younger. And the bumpy ride—that was his life now.

So much had changed. It amazed him even thinking about it. Six years ago, he had been an army field surgeon, seeing active duty in off-and-on stretches, spending most of his time acting as the intermediary medical consultant and surgeon between combat injuries and the soldier’s transport back home. Until two years into his duty when he, himself, had been the one on that transport, finding the end of his military medical career in a hospital rehab section, trying to relearn the use of an arm now held together with hardware.

Sighing, Caleb glanced at the time on his cell phone, and pressed the gas pedal a little harder. Marrell was about as big as a blink and here he was, on his first day at Sinclair Hospital, tooling through town so slowly he was in jeopardy of being late. First day on a new job in a new life, and he was unsure of himself. Unsure of his decision to move home, to start over here. But Hans Schilling tutored privately nearby, and the Schilling name was nothing to be sneezed at in the world of classical piano. Matthew needed that tutoring, so his list of “nevers” went by the wayside.

Also, being back home did come with some advantages. His family, the beautiful area... Yes, those were his own personal fond memories, and he was glad he did have some, because he had other memories, too. The dark, painful ones, where he’d been the odd kid out. And now Matthew could easily become the same.

Stopping his truck in front of the hospital, in a parking spot that was already labeled with his name, Caleb glanced at the sign over the front door, then glanced away. Was he really doing this? Really going to work at Sinclair Hospital? It used to be just a clinic—a lodge-type building sporting one doctor, two exam rooms, a makeshift lab and a tiny space for minor procedures. It had also been his safe haven as a kid. But Henry had added on a piece at a time to his clinic until he’d finally built a respectable regional hospital. Henry Sinclair—the doctor who’d delivered him, who’d introduced him to the world of medicine. Something that had turned into his passion at a very young age.

“You coming in?” Henry asked, knocking on Caleb’s window. He was an affable-looking man. Large, broad smile, thick gray hair, keen gray eyes, rugged build. Except for his hair color, Henry hadn’t changed in the thirty-six years he’d known him. Not true for Caleb, though. He was gaunt, could see it when he looked in the mirror. And he looked tired. Plus, there was no joy in his eyes like he saw in Henry’s. Only a haunting reminder—

“Just indulging in a few memories of the place,” Caleb said, stepping out of the truck. But the memories here were mixed. Good and bad. The good had helped build him into who he was today, the bad had worked against him for a long, hard time.

“It’s changed a lot since you last worked here. Got forty-five beds now, an operating room for minor surgeries, and specialists coming in part-time. So, you could say we’re almost well-rounded.”

“Marrell’s changed, too. It has more than two buildings. And did I notice a turnoff sign out on the highway.” For a town where no one ever turned off.

Caleb locked the truck door behind him, wondering if people here still left all their doors unlocked, or had time finally caught up to this tiny little nowhere town? Nah, time hadn’t caught up, he decided. Their doors were still unlocked.

“Population has almost quadrupled since you left. People are finding this a nice place to retire, or build a weekend cabin. Got a couple of movie stars with ranches nearby and, of course, Hans Schilling. Also, lots of beautiful wilderness still untouched, no one to bother you—”

“Meaning Marrell is finally on the map?” He fell into step with Henry, the way he’d often done when he’d been a kid, feeling so important in the middle of his insecure world.

He chuckled. “We’ve always been on the map, son. You just weren’t looking at the right map.”

In all fairness, that was true. He hadn’t been, because he’d hated Marrell when he’d been young. It had been too confining, too limiting in what it had to offer. Especially for the genius kid who hadn’t fit in. Then there was Leanne—

“So, tell me, Henry, how many patients can I expect to see daily?” He held the front door open and allowed Henry to enter the lobby in front of him. It was a well-appointed area, wide-open spaces, lots of wood structure. It resembled a mountain lodge more than a hospital.

“Maybe a dozen, on average. We’ve got people coming in from all over the area, and Dora Hanson over in Westslope is retiring shortly so, little by little, she’s sending her practice to us.”

“She’s retiring?” He remembered her. She was a good doctor. Kind. Gave out huge lollipops to all the children. “Hard to imagine.”

“When you get to that certain age...”

Dora Hanson, getting to that age. He still pictured her as forty, vibrant, cheery smile. Of course, she probably still pictured him as someone close to Matthew’s age—five. Time did have a way of marching on when you weren’t noticing. “I always liked her. She gave out better candy than you did.”

Henry chuckled. “Of course, you would remember the important thing.”

“To a young child, that lollipop was the important thing.”

“Do you give out lollipops, Caleb?”

He didn’t. His two years in a Las Vegas clinic had been so fast-paced, he’d barely had time to get the necessities done, let alone give out lollipops or even be the father Matthew needed. “Maybe I’ll have to buy some,” he said, suddenly feeling connected a little differently than he had only moments earlier. Back to his roots, back to some of the more traditional ways. Ways he hoped to give to his nontraditional son.

“Well, just so it won’t come as a big shock to you when you hear it, Dora and I are getting married shortly.”

That announcement snapped Caleb back to the present, and he blinked his surprise. “What?”

“Getting married and heading toward retirement while I’m still young enough to enjoy my new life with her.” He pointed to a hall veering off the main waiting area, and both men headed in that direction. “Got some good fishing years left in me, and Dora and I want to travel, take in some sights we weren’t able to see while we were in full-time practice.”

“Who’s going to run the hospital?” Caleb asked, even though he had a sinking feeling he already knew.

They stopped in front of a door that was marked “Family Practice Clinic,” with the name “Dr. Caleb Carsten” already inscribed on a placard next to it. “I’m signing the place over to Leanne, but she’s been telling me she doesn’t want to move back here.” He grinned. “Since she’ll be the new owner, I suppose that will be her problem to figure out while I’m out on the river somewhere, casting my line.”

Leanne Sinclair. The name from his past he wasn’t sure he liked hearing again. Of course, working for her dad made it inevitable that he would, although he’d been trying not to think about it. But working for her?

Suddenly, Caleb was having second thoughts about being here. And third thoughts. For an instant, he wondered if he should simply get his old job back, and look for a different resolution in his life. Someplace where he didn’t have to be around Leanne, or the memories she’d left him with, memories that once-upon-a-time had nearly destroyed him. Sure, they had been kids back then, but some hurts didn’t go away. Instead, they lingered and festered like an open wound. Leanne was his open wound.

* * *

Leanne Sinclair leaned her head back against her chair and sighed. “All you have to do is say the word, and I won’t go.” She’d known that returning home might be a possibility, but now? She’d had four great months with Eric and, while she wasn’t ready yet to call him the one, he was certainly settling in on that distinction. He’d asked her, two weeks into their relationship, to make it exclusive, and she’d agreed.

But now, her dad needed her home. Five hundred and eighty-two miles from Seattle, and from Eric. A nineteen-hour drive due to the rough terrain. Not so far in miles, but very far by the emotions when she really had none invested in Marrell, Montana. Hadn’t for a long time.

And, while she was absolutely coming back to Seattle after she got the situation in Marrell sorted, she wasn’t sure, yet, how everything was going to work. Her dad was going into semiretirement with an eye toward full retirement in a year, and he was giving her his hospital. Not only that, but he wanted her to stay and run it.

Like that would ever happen.

“I’m waiting,” she said to Eric, her eyes still closed.

“Going home’s not such a bad thing, is it? And it’s not like it’s going to be forever.”

That wasn’t exactly what she’d wanted to hear from him. Somehow, in her mind, she’d expected him to ask her to stay. Or even beg her. Tell her he couldn’t live without her, or didn’t want to. But to suggest she should go?

“And it’s not like Marrell’s that far from Seattle,” he continued. “We can meet up in the middle somewhere, anytime we’re both free.”

She stared up at him. Eric Harrison was a handsome man. Movie-star good looks. Black, wavy hair, green eyes, nice physique. “Are you saying you want me to go? Is that what I’m hearing?”

Eric, who was standing across from Leanne, leaned forward, placed the palms of his hands flat on her desk and shook his head. “Of course, I don’t want you to go. But we don’t all get the choices we like, do we?”

No, she hadn’t expected this at all, and she was stunned by how quickly the hurt was bubbling up in her. “I don’t understand. Since we’re so new, I thought you’d want me to stay.”

He chuckled. “Don’t be so insecure. We’ll make this work, no matter where you are.”

“A long-distance relationship?”

“For three months. A lot of people do it for a whole lot longer than that. It’s not so difficult these days.”

“But I’m not a lot of people.” And she wanted to stay close to her man. She also wanted him to want her to stay closer and, so far, Eric was avoiding that.

“No, you’re not, or I wouldn’t have been so attracted to you in the first place.”

Maybe it was some undefined apprehension causing her to wonder if that attraction had been anything other than physical for him. Some stupid insecurity just now popping up. Because she was feeling apprehensive about going to Marrell. Not sure why, but her stomach was doing flip-flops, now that the plan was all but definite. “Can we try to schedule meeting somewhere two or three times a month?”

“Or more, if we can work it out.” He reached over and squeezed her hand. “It’s going to work, Leanne. You’ve got my promise.”

Maybe she had his promise, but what she didn’t have was his optimism. And she wasn’t normally such a pessimist. But there was something about going home for three months...

* * *

“One year, ten months,” Henry Sinclair stated emphatically. He and Leanne were strolling together through the halls of Sinclair Hospital, both wearing white jackets, both looking very doctorly.

“That long?” Leanne questioned. “I’d have sworn I came home sometime about a year ago.” Her dad looked good. He claimed his health was great, and she trusted he wasn’t lying to her. Plus, he was a man in love. After a lifetime of having no mother, at age thirty-six she was about to get one. Dora was nice. Leanne had known her all her life, and she was sure that her dad and Dora would be happy together. Maybe Dora would succeed in something where she’d failed—holding her dad’s attention for more than a minute or two at a time. She hoped so.

“Nope. I marked it off on the calendar. One year and ten months, which you might as well call two years.”

Admittedly, she hadn’t been the most dutiful of daughters these past several years. First, because she just didn’t like coming home. And second, because as her responsibilities and skills continued to move her forward in Seattle’s medical mainstream, she was better able to forget Marrell. Some memories weren’t as vivid, she was discovering now that she was back, and she was fine with that.

So, she was eager to get on with whatever she had to do so she could go back to her real life. To Eric. Because the farther she was away from him in miles, the further she felt distanced emotionally. The way she always had, in every other relationship, affair or friendship she’d attempted. Eric was her success. Her longest. Except Caleb, but that had been a kid thing, which didn’t count. And now, she didn’t want anything happening to what she had with Eric. But she was already beginning to feel the detachment, wondering if it had something to do with Marrell.

What was it about this place that made her feel so uncomfortable?

“So, about the hospital, Dad...”

“I know. You don’t want it. Don’t want to move back here.”

“None of that’s changed.” Couldn’t, wouldn’t.

“You always knew it would be yours, Leanne. This shouldn’t come to you as a surprise.”

“It doesn’t. But I’m not...” She drew in a deep breath. This was difficult because she didn’t want to hurt him. While her feelings for her dad were strained, there was nothing malicious in her. Nothing that made her want to punish him. Living how she wanted would, though, as that didn’t include her dad’s dream. “Since I’m not moving back, my thought was to own it from a distance and trust the daily operations to someone else.” She could tell by the disappointment registering on her dad’s face it wasn’t what he’d hoped for. But it was the best she could do. “I don’t fit in here, Dad.” Hadn’t since she’d been a kid. In fact, the most solid memory of her childhood was her plan to get away from Marrell as soon as she could.

She and Caleb running away together... They were only nine or ten when they’d planned it, but it was a plan that had always stayed alive in her with, or without, Caleb. “I’ve lived away from Marrell almost as long as I lived here, and the blood in my veins runs pretty thin when it comes to my sentiment for this place.”

Finally arriving at her dad’s office, she followed him in, immediately went to the cushy leather chair across the desk from him and sat down. Same chair she’d always sat in. Same decorations. Fishing lures and poles hung on the wall, photos of fishing trips filled spaces where fishing gear did not, along with old photos of babies he’d delivered and patients he’d cured. No pictures of her. Bookshelves on the south wall were filled with medical volumes and books about—yes, fishing. All of him, none of her. Such a stark reminder of what she’d never had.

“There’s nothing I can say or do to change your mind?” Henry asked, dropping down into the well-worn leather chair behind his desk.

“I took a three-month leave of absence instead of resigning my position in the hospital. That’ll give me plenty of time to get to know Sinclair, and find the right person to take over.”

“But you’ll still own it?”

No, she didn’t want that burden either. But the hospital was almost a family legacy, so it only seemed right that she should keep it in the family...for a while. “I’ll still own it,” she replied.

“Well, I do have a new hire who might be good to take over. Caleb Carsten. He’s been here three weeks, just moved back to Marrell himself.”

“Caleb’s back?” she asked, totally shocked. Caleb—her first love when she’d been five. First heartbreak much later. “I’m surprised,” she said tentatively, not sure how to react. To love him being here because he might be the solution to her problem, or hate it because he’d quit being her friend when she’d most needed one? Maybe she’d be indifferent since all that was a lifetime ago. “He hated it here. That was something we both had in common.” And it almost felt personal that he’d changed his mind and come back.

“Well, hate or not, he’s renting the old Wilson place out on Bentwood Road, and if his plans work out, he’ll probably buy it.”

Caleb settling down here? Hard to imagine. So, what was behind it? “He’s a surgeon, isn’t he? Why would a surgeon want to work here? We don’t do major surgeries.”

“Because he’s in family practice now. Got wounded in Afghanistan, can’t operate. He had to change direction.”

Well, Caleb had always been about changing direction, hadn’t he? Still, changing direction toward Marrell? Why here, specifically? “Why didn’t you tell me he’d come home?” she asked, dragging up old memories of Caleb Carsten. He’d been a little on the rough side, looks-wise. Sandy-blond hair, always a little bit long and unkempt, blue eyes... Sort of a solitary boy. Awkward. Odd. Often in trouble. Smart. Probably the smartest kid she’d known. So full of promises she’d bought into when she was so young she hadn’t understood all the things that had kept him apart from the other kids in town.

“Because I wasn’t sure he’d accept my offer to work here permanently, and I’m still not sure he’ll stay. So, I decided to wait until he’d made up his mind about Marrell before I said anything.”

“Meaning you kept me out of the loop, even though you want me to take over the very same loop you’re keeping me out of?” Some things never changed. Her dad had always overlooked her. Even when she’d tried hard to get him to notice, he never had. In fact, there’d been times when she’d believed he’d favored Caleb over her.

“I thought if you knew Caleb was back, you might not come. You two didn’t have a happily-ever-after ending, you know.”

“He was a bad kid, Dad. Got into trouble. Got put in jail.” Replaced me whenever you’d let him. “What was I supposed to do? Give up on everything I wanted and hope he would have a miracle transformation? And you’re right, if I’d known he was back, working here in family practice, I probably wouldn’t have come. Not because I don’t want to see him but because he’s capable of doing everything you expect me to do and, probably, secretly want him to do more than you want me to.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Henry asked, looking over the top of his glasses at her.

“It means Marrell isn’t big enough to support both Caleb and me, especially in the same field. Since he apparently wants to be here, and I don’t...” She shrugged.

“But the hospital’s yours, all except signing the papers, which are being drawn up right now.”

“You know I don’t want to run it, Dad, or work in it. I’ll own it, but that’s all, as I have a different life than that.” He wasn’t listening to her, though, like the way he’d never listened to anything she’d ever said. Still, she wasn’t giving up on this. Especially now that Caleb had entered the mix and offered her the possibility of something she hadn’t expected—a good, workable solution.

“Then it will have to be your decision to turn the day-to-day operations over to somebody else.”

She wasn’t going to engage. They’d had this discussion—argument—many times over the past year. He knew where she stood, and nothing about that had changed. But Caleb...now, that added a whole new dimension to this argument. Maybe he could be the one to take over. Hopefully, buy her out sometime in the future. It was certainly a plan worth considering. “Which I will certainly do. So, how was Caleb wounded?” she asked, not sure what to expect.

“Shot in the shoulder. Shattered the bone, caused some neurological damage. Not enough to cause a lot of disability but enough to keep him out of the OR.”

That was too bad, because she imagined Caleb would be good at anything he did. She was sure he’d have been a great surgeon. “And he’s back in Marrell, why?”

“To raise his son. To be closer to his family, so they can help him.”

“Then he’s a single father?” That was something she hadn’t expected. Somehow, she didn’t picture Caleb as the father type.

“To a five-year-old.”

“No mother in the picture?”

“Not that I’m aware of. But Caleb’s a very good dad. Dotes on his son.”

“I don’t suppose I would have expected that from someone like him.” Because she still pictured him as the one who stood apart from everybody else. The one being cuffed and carted off to jail. Which was, in fact, the last time she’d ever seen him.

“Someone like him, Leanne? Caleb was always a nice boy. A little troubled, yes, but he had potential. Went into the army after he was released from detention, got himself through college and med school. Then turned his life into something successful.”

“I guess that makes sense, seeing how he would come to the hospital and follow you around all the time. And all the attention you gave him.” That he hadn’t given her. “Anyway, I’ll catch up with him as soon as I can. Maybe ask him about taking over admin duties at Sinclair.”

“Let him settle in first. Figure out if he’s going to stay or not.”

“You mentioned that before, that he might not stay.”

“If Matthew doesn’t get into Hans Schilling’s school, he might not.”

“The orchestral conductor who runs that school for child prodigies? Matthew is a musical prodigy?”

“From what I’ve heard. And that’s the real reason why Caleb came home. Sure, having his family here for Matthew was a big incentive, but Hans Schilling was the real draw.”

“Well, I’m not going to promise I’ll wait before I start pressing him, because I have a life to get back to. But first I’d like to talk to him—for old times’ sake.” Not that she really recalled many of those old times since she’d been more focused on how she was going to make new times for herself.

“He’s in this morning.” Henry glanced at his watch, saw that morning had slipped into noon. “Actually, you’ll probably find him in the cafeteria right about now. Eating lunch.”

“Then I’m on my way to the cafeteria. Care to join me?”

Henry shook his head. “I’m taking off early today. Meeting up with Dora, and we’re going fishing. Do you want to join us for dinner tonight?”

“Fresh catch?” she asked, standing up.

“Whatever we can come up with. Dora makes this great frying batter...” He licked his lips. “You know she’s going to make me fat, don’t you?”

Leanne walked around the desk, bent down and gave her dad a kiss on his forehead. Even though they had their differences, some of them severe, she loved the old man. Admired him for his dedication to his work. He was a great doctor all the time, and a not-so-great father some of the time. In the scheme of things, she supposed he did the best that he could. “You haven’t gained a pound in all the years I’ve known you and I don’t think Dora’s going to change that,” she said. Then she went off in search of Caleb.

* * *

Caleb’s first inclination was to look away when he noticed Leanne coming toward him. But that was the sixteen-year-old boy in him reacting. Apparently, when it came to Leanne, he was much closer to being that sixteen-year-old boy than he was a thirty-six-year-old man, because he did glance away about the same time his heart did a little clutch. So, he fixed his attention on the clock above the cafeteria cash register. Got involved in some heavy-duty studying of the way the hand that counted the seconds jerked as it ticked from moment to moment.

“Caleb?” she said, stopping directly in front of him, extending her hand to him. “How are you?”

He glanced up at her, smiled politely, stood, and accepted her handshake. “Leanne,” he responded, then allowed himself a two-second appraisal of her, from head to toe. Beautiful was the word that first popped into his mind. Then stunning. Followed by caution. All while the jerky hand of the clock ticked loud enough to taunt him and cause him to sweat.

She let go of his hand and returned the same stare he’d just given her. Only, a little longer than two seconds. “I had no idea you’d come back to Marrell. Odd coincidence we’re both here at the same time, isn’t it?” she finally said.

She looked like she wanted to sit down with him. Had her hands on the back of the chair, ready to pull it out from the table. Problem was, he wasn’t ready to have her there. Wasn’t ready to have her attempt polite conversation or reminiscences. Wasn’t ready for anything, where Leanne Sinclair was concerned. “I suppose it was bound to happen at some point, since you’re going to be my new boss.” Said deliberately and stiffly because he didn’t want to leave the impression that he wanted to be friendly. Not with her.

Despite his best efforts to put up an almost visible wall between them, she pulled out the chair and seated herself across from him. Looking too damned pleasant. “Yeah, well, Dad and I have a difference of opinion on that. Which I don’t want to talk about right now. Instead, tell me all about yourself.”

He sat back down, looked down at the half-eaten Cobb salad sitting in front of him, then pushed it away. Suddenly his appetite was gone. “Not much to tell.” At least, not much to tell her.

She adjusted in her chair, folded her hands on the table in front of her and stared him straight in the eyes. “Dad says you have a little boy?”

“Matthew. He’s five. Closer to six now.”

“It’s hard to believe that you—that we’ve gotten that old. Last time I talked to you, you were what? Sixteen? Seventeen? And now you’re a dad?”

“Yep. I’m a dad,” he said, his voice still purposely stiff.

“Are you OK, Caleb?” she asked. “You seem...quiet.”

“Just thinking about all I’ve got lined up for the afternoon.” Not true, but it sufficed as the truth because what point was there in being blunt? Or telling her that he didn’t want to be anywhere near her? Their close proximity was inevitable, at least for now, so why make it more difficult than it already was?

“Need some help? I don’t have anything to do, and I’d be glad to pitch in.”

“No. I’m fine. Only have a half-dozen patients scheduled, and I don’t have anyone admitted to the hospital right now, so I’m good. But...thanks.” She was trying so hard to break through to him, it almost made him feel bad that he was keeping his distance. But he didn’t trust Leanne. He’d learned his lesson with her years ago, and it had been a hard one to learn—that life, and people, could be cruel. She’d shown him that, and he had no reason to believe she’d changed. Of course, there was no reason to believe she hadn’t changed either. Consequently, he was fresh out of benefits-of-the-doubt where Leanne, or women in general, were concerned. She’d hurt him once too many times to yield even an inch for her. So had his ex-wife.

While the hurt was still fresh with Nancy, and Matthew was a constant reminder of that, going on to twenty years was a long time to hold on to all that hurt from Leanne. So, maybe it was just the whole relationship thing in general that he didn’t want anywhere near him. At least, that was the thought he held on to when he did the polite thing and went to get her a glass of iced tea. Extra lemon, one artificial sweetener—something he shouldn’t remember from the old days, yet did. But why? Caleb blew out a heavily frustrated breath as he carried her tea back to their table; impatient with himself for hanging on to such a trite little detail among a barrage of so many other larger, more impactful ones.

“Thanks for the tea,” she said after taking her first sip. “I’m surprised you remembered how I take it.”

“It came back to me,” he lied. There were many things about Leanne he’d never forgotten. The way she tilted her head slightly to the right when she laughed. Or entered a room with such purpose she drew everybody’s attention without even trying. Even the virulent expression that came over her when she was getting ready to put him down in front of his friends. Make fun of him. Lead him on, only to humiliate him.

“I know we weren’t great friends back when we were teenagers,” she said, “but it’s nice seeing you again. I’ve lost touch with pretty much everybody else. So, what have you been doing with yourself all these years...besides being a doctor and a dad? I heard you were in the military?”

Well, he did have to hand it to her. She was trying hard to be friendly. But it was difficult buying into something he didn’t trust. Difficult buying into that friendliness. “Went into the Army after jail. They put me through med school, then I went to a base hospital in Germany, as a surgeon. By the time I was thirty-one, I’d met Nancy, was well on my way to being a dad, and before my first anniversary in Germany, I was newly married and newly deployed to Afghanistan.

“My first deployment was short because they let me go back to Germany for Matthew’s birth. Then sent me back into combat when he was three months old. I was pretty successful in battlefield surgery there for nine months, then got wounded, then sent back to Germany to rehab and got divorced since she’d decided she didn’t like being tied down. When the military sent me stateside, I rehabbed a little more in Boston and concluded I’d never be a surgeon again, not that I’d had much time to be one before. So, off to California to rehab for a few more months, then took a job there, hated it. Went to Houston, hated it. Philadelphia...the same.

“Finally, by the time Matthew was three and I was beginning to realize he needed stability, I landed a good job in Vegas, and settled down. But it was a horrible life for Matthew, who was getting old enough that his surroundings were making a difference. He didn’t get to go out and play. His musical talent was beginning to appear but there was no one to guide it. No friends. Plus, his intellect set him apart from just about everything and everyone, and he was becoming a very unhappy, sullen little guy.

“So... Marrell. Primarily because Hans Schilling was here, and I want Matthew in his program.”

“Then you didn’t come back only because you wanted to come home?”

“I’ve been reading about Schilling for two years. Wasn’t thrilled that he’d ended up in Marrell, since I didn’t want to end up here. But it is what it is. You have a kid, you turn your life inside out for him.” It all sounded so cut-and-dried, even though it was anything but. And it tumbled out in far more abundance than he would have liked, and much too easily to be comfortable with.

“Sounds like quite a...journey. For both of you.”

It was. A very rocky one because he was scared every step of it. Scared for Matthew, who needed more stability than he thought he could give. Scared for himself because every moment of every day he wondered if he was good enough to parent Matthew. “It is, but I’m hoping Marrell’s our last stop. So, how about you? What have you been doing with yourself all these years?” He asked, not because he cared so much, but because he wanted to focus his thoughts elsewhere. Get rid of the ones that plagued him day in, day out.

“Pretty much med school, then medical practice. A couple of promotions. One I backed out of because it didn’t suit me. Haven’t had time for anything else.”

“Then you’re not married?” He wasn’t sure why he’d asked because he didn’t care.

She laughed. “Not yet, but...” She smiled, shrugged, then took a sip of tea. “I always knew you were going to be a doctor. Knew I was, too. But both of us here, back in Marrell...”

“I’m here because most everything I do now is for Matthew. No other reason.” He wanted to be clear about that. Wanted her to know he made time for little else. Because, if she was looking for a friendship, or anything else from him...

“It was difficult on Dad, raising me alone, so I’m sure it’s just as difficult for you. I’d like to meet him sometime, if we can arrange it.”

She sounded sincere, and the gentleness in her eyes wasn’t the same look he’d gotten used to seeing there all those years ago. “He’s not settling in too well yet. My parents have him while I’m at work, and I have him the rest of the time, and he’s just not finding his niche here.”

“But if he gets on with Hans Schilling, I’m sure that will help him find his place. It’s got to be difficult for him, all these changes he’s gone through at such a young age. When I was his age, I don’t think I’d ever been any farther away than Saka’am, or Westslope.”

“He’s been cool with the travel part. He’s a lot like I was, though. Too smart to fit in. Always trying to wrap himself in his own little world.”

“When you were a kid, I remember you used to like to hang out at the hospital and read Dad’s medical texts for fun. You’d sit in his study for hours, reading, all wrapped up in a cocoon you’d built around yourself to shut people out.”

“Matthew does that with his practicing.”

“What does he do for fun?” she asked.

“He considers what he’s doing fun. Like I said, Matthew is...serious. Too smart for his own good, too talented for his age, and the things that are fun for him are all tied up in that. Probably too much, which is why I’m hoping Schilling will accept him, because I think training tailored specifically for Matthew’s talents will help him see there’s more to life than his studies and his music.”

“He needs to have the kind of fun we did back then,” she said, sounding as if she was trying to convince herself. “Remember how I always looked forward to seeing you?”

Seriously, that’s what she remembered? That, and not the rest of it? How convenient, not dwelling on the way she’d treated him. But why? Because she wanted something from him again? The way she always had in the past? Ask for something, lead him on with expectations, then smash him to bits? “Yeah, good times,” he said, trying not to sound too bitter even though, to his own ears, his words came out, as they said, as bitter as gall. “That was a long time ago, Leanne. I try not to dredge up old memories.”

“Me neither, to be honest. All I wanted was to get out of Marrell. I think everything I did from the age of thirteen or fourteen was centered on that.”

Or humiliating him. “But you’re back. So, are you going to stay?”

“No. But Dad’s trying hard to convince me to.”

“He is pretty set on having you run the hospital.”

“I know. But I’m set on getting someone else to do it for me so I can go back to Seattle. Which isn’t what Dad planned for me, and it’s really causing me a lot of conflict because I don’t want to hurt him. But I don’t want to get hurt in this either.”

“You coming home is all he’s talked about ever since I got here,” he said, taking a sip of his coffee.

“Well, times are changing and that’s going to include my dad, who’s totally resisted change pretty much as long as I’ve been alive. I’m worried about him, though.”

Yes, times did change but, fundamentally, did people? This Leanne seemed nicer than the one he remembered. She seemed more genuine. Closer to the younger one, the little girl who’d been his friend for a time. Or was it all a deception, the way Nancy had been a deception? Thinking about all those pretexts in his life and how they’d hurt him, Caleb forced himself to smile. “Well, times may change everywhere else, but I wonder if they ever do in Marrell.”

Leanne laughed. “Not so much. Mrs. Purcell still runs the grocery, Mr. Merrick is still the only mechanic in town, the post office is still in the back room of the hardware store. But there’s a health club now, and the hospital. I suppose everything gives way to progress at some point, don’t you think?”

Despite his feelings, Caleb chuckled. “And there’s a stoplight on Main Street, and a coffee shop and even a movie theater.”

“Second-run movies, though,” she said, wrinkling her nose as she smiled.

“So, Seattle?” he asked, to get his mind off the past and the comfort beginning to set in that he simply didn’t want there. “Never been.”

“It’s a nice place. Home. Career.”

“Good life?”

She frowned, and paused a moment. “Most of the time, yes. I have a pretty good life.”

“Which you don’t want to change by moving back to Marrell.”

“Something like that. And that brings me to the point of this conversation. Since you’re staying, or thinking about staying, would you consider running the hospital?”

So that’s what it was, Caleb thought. Step one. She wanted something.

“Maybe even look at buying it sometime in the future?”

Step two: lead him on with an expectation. “Buying it?”

“Something I don’t want Dad knowing just yet. I have some plans...nothing solid, but I may be making a big change in my life, and it’s all about being in Seattle. Not here.”

“Would congratulations be in order?” he asked, waiting for step three to drop down on him. Because it would. It always had with her.

She shook her head. “Not yet. Eric’s been offered a big promotion, and we want to make sure he’s settled into that before we take the next step. So, the timing for that is a little off right now. But in a while...”

Caleb shook his head, and blew out a long breath. Well, her steps were out there. At least, most of them. And he hadn’t had to wait too long. But he had some steps of his own to take and, until Matthew was settled, he wasn’t sure in which direction they were going. “Let me think about it.” Because if it was a legitimate offer, it was interesting. Even tempting. But he wasn’t going to allow himself to buy too far into it, as he’d bought too far into her so many times before. Still, she did need someone here. So maybe... “I’m not making any permanent decision until I find out what’s going to happen with Matthew. If Schilling accepts him, we stay. If he doesn’t, we’ll probably move on until we find the place he needs.”

“I understand, and I won’t press you for an answer, because I know what I’m proposing is a pretty major life-changer. So, take all the time you need. In the meantime, Dad’s going to have a fish fry tonight. Care to come? Maybe we can reminisce about old times.”

“I usually have plans with Matthew every evening.” That was the truth. The other truth was, he still didn’t want to reminisce about anything with Leanne, even if they’d just shared a few nice moments. What was there to reminisce about, besides memories of hurtful events?

“Then breakfast some morning? We could meet at Millie’s Diner down on Main Street, and have some of her world-famous pancakes.”

“Don’t eat pancakes. And it takes me a while to get Matthew ready in the morning so he can spend the day with his grandmother.”

The smile on Leanne’s face finally melted, replaced by a look of confusion. “You don’t want to get together with me, do you? Did I do something to offend you?”

Too many things to discuss. Too many memories he didn’t want to deal with. Nancy had wiped him out and he didn’t want to step back into the ring to take a beating from another contender. “Look, Leanne. I’m busy right now. I’m trying to settle into a new life, set up a home, adjust to a new job, get Matthew situated... I’ve got a lot going on, and not enough time to get everything done.” That much was true. He didn’t. “So, since the only thing you could possibly want from me has to do with the job, drop into my office, ask Betty, the clinic’s secretary, to find a spot in my schedule for you, then put your name in it.”

“You used to be friendlier, Caleb,” she commented, pushing back her tea, then standing.

“I also used to be more gullible. But like you said, times have changed, and I’m part of that change.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked him.

“Whatever you want it to mean.” With that, he picked up his lunch tray, carried it over to the dirty dish area, set it down and left the cafeteria. Didn’t look back. Wasn’t even tempted to. But it did surprise him how all that water he’d thought had long since flowed under the bridge hadn’t flowed as far as he’d thought it had.


Chapter Two (#ucd848064-0aab-53c1-bd5a-5ece0c82131c)

WHAT SHE’D PLANNED and what she got were two entirely different things. Funny, she didn’t remember Caleb being so cool. And he was cool—almost cold. She recalled him being a nice boy, one she’d had a crush on when she’d been little. His intellect, his humor... Then, when he’d got a little older, he’d turned wild. Gotten himself in a lot of trouble. But it seemed he’d worked through all that, because look at him now—to all appearances a great dad, and a great doctor, according to her dad. Well, time had a way of changing people. She certainly wasn’t the same person she’d been whilst growing up in Marrell. That girl had been so unsettled. This one knew her place.

“He wasn’t friendly at all, Dad,” she commented to Henry, who was headed out the front door of his cabin on his way to meet Dora. Leanne was sitting in the porch swing, looking out over the meadowlands to the south, enjoying the nothingness of the moment. She didn’t get too many of those in her life, and this one was nice. “Cordial, and having a hard time maintaining that.”

Henry stopped at the edge of the porch, at the top of the wooden stairs leading to the path below, then turned to face her. “Don’t know what to tell you, Leanne. He’s been very pleasant to me, and to everybody else around here. But he’s got some bad years behind him, so maybe that’s what you’re seeing coming out. Or maybe he was only having a bad afternoon.”

“No. This went beyond a bad afternoon. There was something else going on, something I can’t explain.” And it made her wonder if she did want him to run her hospital after all. Of course, who knew what had gone on in his life? Maybe her dad was right. Maybe she was catching a glimpse of his past. Whatever the case, until she knew more, she would give him the benefit of the doubt and keep the offer open.

But what if she’d seen his real personality?

“Want me to have a talk with him?” Henry asked, appearing impatient to hop down those steps and be on his way. “See if I can figure out what’s bothering him?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s his business, and it’s not my place to interfere. If he wants to talk, he can, but I won’t force him into it.” Because she didn’t like being forced into something she didn’t want to talk about, or admit, or do. A couple of months back she’d been promoted to the head of family practice, then discovered she hated being in charge. She wanted to go back to her old position where she dealt directly with her patients, knew their names and recognized faces, and didn’t have to contend with budgets and scheduling, personnel conflicts and solutions. So, she’d stepped down, returned to what she loved best.

Eric didn’t understand, though, because he craved leadership and authority. Consequently, they’d argued for days. He’d wanted her to keep the promotion. She hadn’t. Simple as that then, simple as that now. She hated being pushed by him, hated pushing just as much, and she wasn’t about to do that to Caleb. “Anyway, have a good time, Dad. Give Dora my love and tell her we’ll get together soon. I think I’m going to pull some late hours working tonight, so maybe we can figure out something for later this week.”

Henry scooted across the porch, gave Leanne a quick kiss on the cheek, then practically ran down the steps and out to his truck, like a man in love who was bursting to see his woman. It was kind of cute, she thought, a little envious that no one had ever been that eager to see her. Except Caleb, when they’d been kids. And that didn’t count.

Leanne spent the next hour in her dad’s home office, staring at a pile of folders, each one containing something she needed to read. Yes, her dad kept his records the old-fashioned way, even though the hospital had upgraded to a nice computer system, and she’d been urging him to do the same at home. “Just read them,” she told herself, as she picked up a particularly fat one, stared at it for a moment, then tossed it back into the pile.

So, what was bugging her? Being home again? Missing Eric? Caleb’s aloof reaction to her? She didn’t know, didn’t particularly care because, true to her sentiments toward admin work, she wasn’t in the mood to get down to business. Which meant all the paperwork confronting her got shoved aside for the time being, and she went to fix herself a cup of hot tea instead.

As the tea kettle whistled, Leanne glanced at her watch, saw that it was almost three o’clock, and decided it was time to refocus. Maybe text Eric. Right now, he would have finished up with his two-thirty appointment and be on his way to a half-hour break. Same routine every day. Never varied. In his office, lock the door, Do Not Disturb.

But this afternoon she wanted to disturb, so she pulled out her phone and texted.

Video chat coming up. Head to your computer.

She waited a moment for his response, but it didn’t come, so she tried another text.

Eric, where are you?

This time she took a smiling selfie and attached it. But there was still no response. So...

Eric? You there?

Two minutes later came a reply.

Give me ten, babe. Tied up now.

She waited ten, wondering why he was tied up on what was supposed to be his break, then pulled out her personal laptop, since her dad’s computer had been around since the dinosaurs, and connected to Eric. Her first reaction when his face came on screen—he looked frazzled. Flushed. Hair mussed, a little sweaty. Her second, he worked too hard. “I miss you,” she started.

“Miss you more,” he responded, looking past the computer camera to what would be the office door. “How’s Marrell?”

“Small. Am I interrupting something?” she asked, noting how preoccupied he seemed.

“No. Just wrapping up some work. Ready to give you my undivided attention now. Anyway, you’ll do fine there. Just start counting off the days until you come back to me.” And finally, he gave her that smile, the one she’d always counted on to make her feel better.

“Easier said than done,” she said, relaxing back into her chair. For whatever reason, she’d been a little edgy going into this chat, but seeing Eric’s smile fixed all of that. “Especially when every day is going to be the same as the one before and the one after.”

“Can’t be that bad.”

“It would be better if you were here.” Even though he’d hate the place. Eric had no patience for small towns, small hospitals, small anything.

“It would be better if you were here,” he countered. “So, tell me what’s happened that’s got you upset? And before you ask how I know, I can see it in your beautiful face. That little worry line between your eyes that pops up occasionally is popping, and it concerns me, Leanne. I don’t like seeing you that way.”

“I’m fine, Eric. Just a little stressed-out. But dealing with it.” She reached up to feel for that worry line and, sure enough... “I met with an old friend today.”

“Boyfriend?” Eric asked.

“No, nothing like that. We were friends when we were younger, that’s all.” Good friends for a while. “When I was five.”

Eric chuckled. “Let me guess. He’s seen what a beautiful woman you’ve grown into and he wants you back.”

She shook her head. “Hardly. He’s not very...friendly.”

“So, what did your unfriendly friend do that’s causing that wrinkle?”

“Actually, I don’t know.” And she didn’t. It had been a strange meeting. “But I got the impression he wanted to get away from me as fast as he could.”

“Why would any man in his right mind want to get away from you?”

“Just preoccupied, I think. He’s heading up our family practice clinic here. He’s also a war vet and a single father. I just...just expected him to be a little more open, or friendly.”

“Well, we all have our stories, don’t we?” He shifted in his chair, and glanced away from the monitor for a moment. Then back at her. “Our secrets, our excuses. So just allow the man his privacy, babe. I’m sure he needs it, for whatever reason.”

Eric was right, of course. Whatever had caused Caleb to be the way he was, it was none of her business. In fact, the only thing that was her business was if he’d be suitable to head the hospital. “I asked him to take over here. Dad says he’s qualified, and that would certainly be a great solution for me.”

He grinned knowingly, arching sexy eyebrows. “It would get you back here to me quicker. I don’t know how I’m going to go three months without you, even if we do get to meet in the middle from time to time, as we’d planned.”

“Like next weekend?” Their first planned get-together. She’d made reservations at a quaint little bed-and-breakfast, and if things well...

“Afraid I’ve got to change that. I’m going to cover for one of the doctors here who needs the time off.”

“But you need the time off, too,” she protested.

“I do. But this comes with the job.”

“Well, then, darn the job,” she said, not even trying to hide her disappointment. “What about the weekend after?”

“Not sure yet. I may have to represent the hospital at a conference, and if I can’t get someone to go in my place, I’ll be running down to Portland to do it myself. But maybe the second weekend of next month?”

“That’s four weeks, Eric! I thought we were going to do better than that.”

“Schedules happen, babe. You know that.”

Yes, she did. And they always seemed to happen with Eric. A lot. “So, in the meantime...”

“Send me sexy selfies.”

She forced a laugh. “What would the good people of Marrell think, if they knew?”

“That your man misses you in ways they’ve probably never even thought of.”

* * *

It had been three days since Leanne had asked him to take charge of the hospital, and he’d been successful in avoiding any thought of it as the clinic had suddenly turned busy. Good excuse for putting it out of his mind, he decided while he escorted Mrs. Gentry down the hall to the reception area to schedule her next appointment. “Like I told you, it’s not serious—yet. It’s poison ivy, and the shot I’ve given you should start to clear it up, plus the pills I’ve prescribed will finish that. But you’ve got to take those pills,” he warned the woman, fighting to hold his concentration. This past hour, Leanne had crept into his thoughts more than he was comfortable with. Her changes. His trust issues. Especially way she looked... And while his patient’s condition was annoying to her, it just wasn’t enough to hold his undivided attention. “Do you understand me? Your poison ivy is close to spreading to your eyes, and if that happens, it will turn into a serious situation.”

“I’ll do my best, Caleb,” she told him, then reached up and patted him on the cheek. “You’ve grown up to be such a nice, polite boy. I always thought you had it in you to do good things. Even when you were acting out the way you did.”

Sally Gentry was his grandmother’s next-door neighbor. He’d played in her yard, eaten her homemade cookies, drunk her lemonade. Now he was her doctor, and she’d brought him cookies and lemonade today. “Just take care of yourself. Promise me?” It was tough treating old friends, knowing things about them that their doctor didn’t have a right to know. He wondered how Henry had done that for the past forty years, how he’d separated the doctor from the friend or neighbor. Wondered if he could. Or if the town would let him, considering how most of them remembered him, remembered what he’d done.

“Ruth and I are cooking together tonight, if you’d like to come over for dinner.” Ruth Carsten was his grandmother, and she and Sally spent a lot of time together now that they were both widows. “We’re fixing your favorite fried chicken.”

“I appreciate the offer, Mrs. Gentry, but Matthew and I have other plans.” Actually, they didn’t. But a night spent with two octogenarians fussing over him wouldn’t sit well with Matthew, especially when all he wanted to do with his evenings right now was learn Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, Opus 66, for his upcoming audition with Hans Schilling. Caleb didn’t want to interrupt his son’s regular habits any more than they’d been disrupted by moving here. “Send my love to my grandmother, though, and tell her Matthew and I will drop by in a couple of days.”

Patients came and went for the next couple of hours, and Caleb kept himself busy, all the while trying not to think about the jerk he’d made of himself with Leanne. And make no mistake about it, he’d been a real jerk. Rude. Almost hostile. He’d known their meeting would be inevitable, and difficult, but he’d reckoned he’d put away some of his teenage feelings for her a long time ago. Had hoped that he wouldn’t react to her the way he had the last time they’d seen each other—the day when he’d been hauled out of Marrell in handcuffs, in the back of a police car.

But no. One look at her, and he’d turned right back into that hurt teenager who’d let himself become the object of some serious bullying. And her plaything. Good old Caleb, there when she’d needed him, rejected when she hadn’t. Made fun of in all those times in-between. Apparently, where Leanne was concerned, he hadn’t moved too far away from the boy who’d been too hurt and confused to know how to respond. He wasn’t sure he knew how, even now.

What surprised him most, though—totally shocked him—were the other feelings coming to surface. Ones where all he’d wanted was her attention. Ones that had carried him from a little-boy crush into a teenage heartbreak over a love he couldn’t have. He’d hated her for what she’d done to him, but he couldn’t help loving her at the same time. And some of those feelings were churning up in him now. Not that he loved her anymore, because he didn’t. But the memories of that young love were surprisingly vivid, and stirring.

“I’m out of here,” he told Betty, his secretary, on his way through the door, still trying to shake off all images of Leanne. He needed to concentrate on Matthew now. Not her. “Have a good evening.”

“You, too, Caleb.”

He smiled at her use of his name. Everyone in town knew him or his family, and everybody called him Caleb. He didn’t mind, but then again, he wondered about Henry, who had the same familiarity in town but was never addressed as anything but Doctor. Maybe it was the age difference; more age equaled more respect. Or maybe the town still saw him as Martha and Tom’s embarrassment. Well, that was Marrell, wasn’t it?

“Headed home?” Leanne asked, catching up with Caleb in the parking lot.

He drew in a deep breath, promised himself he would be civil, and caught himself being fascinated by the way the late-day sun danced with the auburn of her hair. Too fascinated. He immediately went into standoff mode. Took a step back from her. “Going to go get Matthew first. My folks watch him during the day,” he said, forcing his stare to the black asphalt beneath his feet, a much safer place to stare.

“Any plans for dinner? Because Dad and Dora have been fishing all afternoon again, and since you turned me down for the last fish fry, I thought the two of you might like to join us.”

It was a tempting offer, and he appreciated that Leanne hadn’t been so put off by him the other day that she was extending this invitation, but he still wasn’t easy with it. He’d never been one to give much credence to people who claimed they needed closure, but he wondered if he, himself, had needed it all those years ago. Or even now? “Thanks, but Matthew’s practice...”

“You’ve got to eat, Caleb. Couldn’t he take a break for an hour or so, and the two of you come to the house? I mean, I don’t know what happened between us the other day, but I’d like to have the chance to start over, on a better footing.”

He cleared his throat. “Sorry about that. I’m not usually that rude.”

“I don’t remember you ever being rude.”

He smiled, forcing himself to relax. No, he hadn’t been. Not up until the very end. More like he’d always been unsuspecting. Until he’d snapped. “Oh, I’m sure I had my moments. You probably weren’t there to see them, though.”

“We all have our moments, don’t we? Good, bad, somewhere in between, all subject to rising up and taking over without notice.”

Caleb laughed. “Some of us more than others.”

“Well, it’s forgotten. Or, better, you owe me one. Next time I have my moment, you’ll be cordial about it and maybe invite me to a fish fry.”

She reached out and laid her hand on his arm, a simple, casual gesture that caused a spark to run the whole way up to his shoulder. “Maybe we will stop by for a little while after all,” he said, wondering why the tingle was still lingering. Wondering why he liked her, even though he didn’t want to. Liked her sensibilities. Saw a depth in her he’d never seen before. “So, what time do you want us?”

“About seven. Will that give Matthew enough time to get some practicing in? I figured that by the time you picked him up and got him home...”

He was pleased that she’d thought to schedule around his son’s habits. It improved her status with him a little more. Something else he didn’t want to happen. But, despite it all, Leanne was happening to him. Again. Only this time he was older. And warned. “That’ll give him an hour and a half, which isn’t enough, but he’ll have to deal with it.”

“Then we’ll see you at seven,” she said, giving his arm a final squeeze before she trotted off to her car.

He watched her for a moment, still curious about the tingle she’d caused in him. He remembered it from all those years ago—every time she’d touched him...although always casually. “Damn,” he muttered, willing himself not to watch her. Not to take in her curves, notice her gentle bounce as she walked. But he couldn’t. She’d always been the prettiest girl in Marrell. And now she was stunning. Something way beyond pretty. Yet something he wasn’t going to get caught up in, again. He’d done that once and, and no matter what your age—young, old, somewhere in between—being played with hurt. Leanne had played hard with his life once, and he wasn’t going to let her get close enough to do it again.

* * *

“It’s so nice meeting you, Matthew,” Leanne said, bending down to greet the boy. He looked just like Caleb, except where Caleb’s hair was more of a sandy blond, Matthew was a definite towhead. But they had the same blue eyes, and Matthew especially had the same shy smile she remembered on Caleb years ago.

“Do you have a piano here?” the boy responded, looking around to see if he could spot one.

Caleb stepped up and put his arm around Matthew’s shoulder. “When he gets fixed on something, he has a one-track mind. Right now, he’s fixed on learning that Chopin piece I mentioned. It’s a little above his skill level just yet, but he’s working hard on it.”

“The ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu,’” Matthew said in a little-boy, matter-of-fact voice. “Do you know it?” he asked Leanne.

“I’m afraid I don’t,” she said, smiling. “But I’d love to hear you play it sometime.”

“Maybe. But it’s not ready yet,” Matthew went on to explain. “That’s why I needed to practice more tonight.”

She noticed how serious he was, particularly for his young age, and wondered if he ever let himself be just a child. Go outside and play. Go wading in the creek. Play video games. Or even talk like a boy his age would talk instead of trying to sound like an adult. The way Caleb had when he was that age. “Well, I’m glad you were able to take a little time off, because we have lots of rainbow trout frying, and we’re going to need help eating it all.”

“Broiled is better,” Matthew informed her, folding his arms across his chest and looking up at her. “Healthier.”

Caleb cleared his throat. “Matthew,” he said, “watch your manners.”

“I will,” the child murmured, taking a step back from Leanne. “Sorry.”

“That’s OK,” Leanne said. “Broiled is healthier, but sometimes fried is just plain good.” She smiled at Caleb. “But if Matthew would prefer I broil him a piece, I can do that.”

Caleb shook his head. “Part of the burden of being Matthew is knowing when to be part of the crowd. Isn’t that right, son?”

Matthew nodded reluctantly. “Sorry,” he conceded again, looking up at his dad and frowning. “I like fried, too.”

“Would you like to go out back and watch my dad do the cooking?” she asked Matthew, realizing he was probably bored to death. He was a little boy with a lot on his mind, and it showed on his face. Same serious expression she remembered on Caleb’s face back in the day.

“I’m sure my dad would like the company.”

After Matthew scampered off, she turned to Caleb, led him through the cabin to the porch and said, “He’s a genius like you were at that age, isn’t he?”

“Prodigy and genius...sometimes I think it’s too much intellect for someone so young to handle,” he replied. “Because he doesn’t find much joy in being a little boy.”

“Did you? Because you were that way, too,” she said. “I always remember being in awe of how smart you were. It was like there wasn’t anything you didn’t know.” They took a seat side by side on the porch swing, the way they’d sat when they’d been kids. Same memory almost. Same swing. Except they weren’t swinging, and Caleb looked pathetically uncomfortable. A leftover from the past, she supposed, thinking back to that night he’d been arrested, and the look on his face when he’d been taken away. A look that had broken her heart then, and still did now when she recalled it.

“I had fun. Maybe not the way most people would define fun, especially when you’re that age, but it was OK. Although that level of intellect has its burdens, which is why I worry so much about Matthew. I want him to learn from what I went through, so it doesn’t have to be so rough on him. But there’s that part of me that keeps saying experience is the best teacher, so I’m always walking a fine line with him.” His hand accidentally brushed against her and he immediately recoiled, then moved as far away from her as he could, until he was pressed tight to the side of the swing. “So far, it’s working pretty well.”

“He seems happy and well-adjusted,” Leanne added, wondering if Caleb would be more comfortable if she sat on the chair across from the swing. Also wondering why he didn’t make that move himself since he obviously didn’t want to be so close to her. But she wasn’t going to say anything. Wasn’t going to make the suggestion. It was Caleb’s problem to deal with, if he wanted to. “So, is it tough raising him alone?”

“Sometimes. He really doesn’t demand much, but there are so many times I just want him to be a little boy. I’d love to play ball with him or the two of us go for a hike in the woods. But he’s never interested. Always refuses when I ask, and I won’t argue with him about it or force him to do something he doesn’t want to, as there’s no balance in that, and all I want to do for him is give him a balanced life. One where he knows his choices count, too. I’m sure some parents might force the issue, but I have to take particular care to nurture his abilities, and if he’s happiest practicing or reading—another favorite activity of his—then I support him in that.”

“Which means no baseball?”

“Not for now,” Caleb said, his face so serious it looked almost ominous. “But, as staunch as he is in his likes and dislikes, he’s also flexible, if I can convince him there’s a reason to be. So, I keep my fingers crossed.”





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Can he trust her with his heart?Army doc Caleb Carsten will do anything for his gifted son—even if it means returning to his home town of Marrell and working for Leanne Sinclair, the childhood crush who once broke his heart.Leanne is thrilled to meet Caleb again. But why can’t she remember more about their past, and what she did to hurt him so badly? And if Leanne can’t show Caleb she’s changed, will he ever trust her with his heart?Sinclair Hospital Surgeons

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